Math Anxiety

The intent of this article is to shed light on what math anxiety is, what it is not, and potential solutions for mitigating the effects of it.  This article is for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice in any way.  Please consult a qualified medical practitioner before implementing any of these suggestions.

What is Math Anxiety?

Simply put, math anxiety is anxiety about one’s ability to do math.  It is specific to the subject of math and therefore is not triggered unless the person is confronted with learning math and/or taking a math test.   Math anxiety is a real condition, and a pretty common one at that.

What are the symptoms of Math Anxiety?

Since math anxiety is a type of anxiety, the symptoms are very similar to other types of anxiety.  Symptoms can occur in the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of a person’s being.  Some of these symptoms include a racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, an upset feeling in the stomach, fear, anger, frustration, confusion, impatience, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, feelings of isolation, and the worst symptom of all – “going blank” on a math test.  Why would I consider going blank to be the worst symptom?  Because going blank prevents students from conveying their knowledge on exams.  This can lead to a failing grade and sometimes failing the class.  That in turn makes the math anxiety worse.  It can become a destructive cycle that can really become a road block for many students.  So math anxiety is a big deal.  But thankfully, there are some very effective tools that work to calm the anxiety and allow your knowledge to shine through. 

How does Math Anxiety differ from other anxiety disorders?

Math anxiety is NOT a generalized anxiety disorder, although people who have generalized anxiety disorder(s) often do experience math anxiety as well.  Math anxiety is a stand-alone type of anxiety that someone experiences only in regards to mathematics.  Generalized anxiety is a much broader medical condition and it is not within the scope of this article to discuss generalized anxiety disorder(s) or conditions related to such disorders.

What is happening in the body when a person experiences Math Anxiety?

It is very important for you to understand what is happening in your body when you experience math anxiety because the knowledge of what is happening is actually a part of the solution.  Math anxiety activates your instinctual fight or flight mechanism.  This mechanism is innate to our bodies and is meant to be activated in emergencies so we can either fight or flee something dangerous.  If you saw a tiger charging you, this mechanism would get activated and would be crucial to your survival.   In this instance you would get a burst of cortisol from your adrenal glands and the blood in your brain would drain into your muscles giving you extra energy to either fight or flee.  This is a very good thing because in this situation you don’t need to think – you need to act.  However, when a student has anxiety about math and this same mechanism is taking place in his or her body, the effects are not beneficial.  The “going blank” symptom that many students experience on math tests is because of this exact mechanism.  The blood drains from your brain causing you to “go blank” which in turns causes further anxiety and stress.  Your math exam is not a tiger, but your body is acting as if it is.  Sound familiar?  If so, you’re not alone.   


The number one solution to deal with anxiety is to be properly prepared for the exam!  I cannot emphasize this enough.  The more you study, the less anxiety you will have.  The solutions below will not help you manifest knowledge you don’t have.  These solutions will help you get what you do know from your brain onto your paper.  So please just keep in mind that proper preparation for an exam is the number one treatment for lessening your anxiety about the exam.  Some people experience studying for an exam as a trigger for their math anxiety.  If you get triggered during the preparation process, then use the solutions below both while you study for the exam and while you take the exam.

The Water Trick

Plain and simple, this trick works.

I learned this trick at a math conference many years ago and I thought exactly what you are going to think when I tell you the trick – there is no way that works.  But I thought, let me try it because it’s just water; it’s free and it’s not going to harm anyone.  I will never forget the first student I used this trick with.  This student had taken several classes with me and I could see very clearly that he understood the math.   His work was neat, orderly, and in class he could connect all the dots and work problems with ease.  But on exams he would go blank and fail the exam.  It had caused him to fail several classes with me.  Finally, I convinced him to come and see me outside of class and he did.  I told him about the water trick and I told him I wasn’t sure it would work as I had never used it with a student before.  He agreed to try it.  The results were impressive!  He went from scoring in the 50s on exams to scoring in the 80s.  He sailed through that class and the next class with me, and then moved on to take his college level class with a different instructor.  I saw him in the hallway during the quarter he was taking his college level math class and I asked him how it was going.  He said:  “Great!  I’ve got my water!” as he turned around to show me his water bottle sticking out of his backpack.  The water trick not only helped him get through his math classes, but it helped him to build confidence in himself.  He was able to complete his degree and move on with this life – and that is always my ultimate goal with my students.  I was thrilled for him. His willingness to try the trick and his subsequent success sent me on a journey of exploration and discovery of using this trick with my students.

Since that time I have used the water trick with many of my students. I have never seen it fail when applied exactly as described here.  I have seen it fail when variations of the trick are tried, so for maximum effectiveness, please follow these directions exactly. 

The trick is simple. 

1.)  Get a water bottle that has a straw that will allow you to sip without having to remove and replace the lid.  Fill the water bottle with room temperature water.  This is very important!  I have seen the trick fail with other types of beverages like herbal tea, juice, pop, coffee, and I’ve even seen it fail with ice water.  I have never seen the trick fail with room temperature water.  Place that water bottle in the hand you will not be writing with. 

2.)  At the start of the exam, start to take sips of water about every 30 seconds or so.   You don’t need to drown yourself.  A sip is sufficient, but the timing is important.  If you wait 2 or 3 minutes between sips, it will fail.  It needs to be frequent sips –about every 30 seconds or so.  You will naturally set the water bottle aside when you get comfortable with the exam.  If at any point during the exam you feel the anxiety creeping back in, start sipping again. 

The water acts like a physiological cut to the anxiety reaction.  It is best explained this way:  if a tiger were attacking you, you would not stop to take a sip of water.  The fact that you are sipping water tells your body that a tiger is not attacking you.  It literally stops the reaction.  It’s truly an amazing trick.  I’ve been using it with my students for over 10 years now and it never ceases to impress me how effective it is.

What results can you expect?  I usually see somewhere around a 20 point gain on exams with students using this trick.  Those scoring in the 50s now score in the 70s, those scoring in the 60s now score in the 80s, and so on.  Sometimes I see more and sometimes a little less, but there is almost always an increase of exam scores into the realm of a passing grade. 

About 25% of the students that I share this trick with won’t apply the trick.  They don’t think it will work so they don’t even bother giving it a try.  I’ll tell you what.  If you don’t try the trick, I can guarantee it won’t work!  So why not try it?  It’s just water.  You have nothing to lose.


Magnesium is known as the “calming mineral” and for good reason.  It is used in over 300 enzyme processes in the body and many of those processes have to do with various aspects of relaxing your system.  Our foods, in general, do not contain as much magnesium as they used to and in addition to that, many people eat a diet of processed foods that are deficient in magnesium.  Supplementation with magnesium can help calm math anxiety a great deal.  There are many forms of magnesium; the two best forms are listed below.

Magnesium glycinate – This form of magnesium has the magnesium attached to a glycine molecule.  It is well absorbed and is very helpful for anxiety. 

Magnesium citrate – This form of magnesium is also well absorbed, but do be aware that this form of magnesium can act as a laxative.  In fact, all forms of magnesium can act as laxatives if taken in high enough dosages.  But magnesium citrate has a laxative effect at lower doses than other forms of magnesium.  This is nice if you need that assistance, but not so nice if you don’t. 

What dosage should you take?  Everyone is different and you will have to figure that out for yourself.  A good place to start is with the dosage recommendations on the bottle and then you can move up or down based on what you feel you need.  Your bowels will let you know if you have taken too much.  Too much of any form of magnesium will give you loose stools and/or diarrhea.

Natural Medicines

There are a number of over the counter, natural treatments that are effective in helping to calm anxiety reactions.  Below is a list of some of the best natural medicines for helping with anxiety, however I have never had a student that needed to resort to using any of these!  The water trick and magnesium have always been enough.  This list is provided to educate you on the other options that are available for calming anxiety.  Instead of repeating the wealth of information available about these medicines online, I am simply going to list them.  You can use a google search to learn more about these medicines if they interest you.

Please note:  If you are taking an antidepressant or any other medication that manipulates your brain chemistry (i.e. medications for ADD, ADHD, seizures, antidepressants, etc.) you should NOT experiment with any of these medicines.  Many of the herbs have impacts in the brain and can therefore interact with the medications you are taking.  Not much is known yet about these interactions, so please play it safe and forgo the herbs.  Stick with the water trick and the magnesium. If you aren’t taking pharmaceutical prescriptions, then the herbs below may be of interest to you.

Also, sedative herbs can make you sleepy!  So be aware that you should try these for the first time on a day when you are not taking an exam to see how you react to the herb. The best form for most of these herbs are herbal extracts in the form of tinctures.  Some of these are also good in tea form.

  • Valerian Root
  • Passionflower
  • Kava Kava
  • Rescue Remedy (this is actually a Bach Flower Essence)
  • Chamomile
  • Lemon Balm
Essential Oils
  • Frankincense
  • Chamomile
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Lavender
  • Jasmine
  • Geranium
  • Sandalwood
  • Vetiver