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Math Anxiety

A flow diagram in which the first node illustrates a person attempting a math problem on a piece of paper. The diagram branches off into two paths: 1) the person appears confused and in distress, with "math anxiety" written on top; 2) the person has a smile on their face as they hold a piece of paper, with "overcome anxiety" written below.

Written by Rosalie Cormier
Illustrated by Amy Zhang

A 2018 study conducted by the University of Toronto’s Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development sought to determine the factors contributing to math anxiety, a form of anxiety which consists of agitation and feelings of unease in response to expectations for performance in mathematical activities. Though many people are genetically predisposed to general anxiety, it is thought that math anxiety has a significant environmental basis. In particular, adults involved in supporting young children’s learning of math have a significant influence on the extent to which they will exhibit stress in response to math throughout the rest of their education. Math anxiety poses a significant hurdle to its sufferers, as individuals who are more math-anxious tend to attain lower scores in class, to have underdeveloped working memories, and to avoid pursuing careers in STEM fields. It is important to note, however, that these are byproducts of the anxiety itself and that math anxiety, like most anxieties, has nothing to do with a person’s actual ability to succeed in math!

There is a general agreement among psychologists that it is important for all students, and especially those who struggle with anxiety, to work on fostering resilience and personal strength in the face of setbacks. University of Toronto researcher Natalie Holtby notes that “people who thrive despite encountering hardship are characterized by their tendency to actively seek solutions to problems,” and students who experience great academic success tend to do so because they are better at developing techniques for handling academic challenges and are more proactive and determined to overcome such challenges.

Grit, an individual’s consistent dedication to the pursuit of their goals, is a personality trait independent of raw cognitive ability. You may be a gritty person by nature if you are inclined to devote significant effort toward reaching goals that you know are not attainable in the near future. Grit appears to be significantly correlated with high performance in math in particular as well as with lower anxiety, and may be a factor in increasing student resilience. Interestingly, although some people tend to be more naturally gritty than others, it is theorized that the primary reason grit predicts academic and career success is the longer amounts of time gritty people are inclined to invest in working toward achieving their goals. Holtby’s study showed that, as hypothesized, children who scored themselves as having higher grit also reported lower levels of anxiety about math. These individuals also tended to rely on three particular methods of coping (termed “adaptive coping skills”): positive reframing, planning, and active coping; that is, gritty students adopt positive perspectives on stressors, devise plans for future action, and are the ones to take initiative to address frustrating situations. In contrast, maladaptive coping skills, like engaging in self-blame, avoiding or denying the problem, and seeking out sources of distraction from study, are not helpful and show a negative correlation with students’ success in math.

Grit is not the only quality to contribute significantly to academic success – among others, self-efficacy proves to be very impactful. Research shows that an individual’s self-efficacy (their confidence in their ability and their perceived competence) correlates significantly with higher grades and greater academic achievement, even more so than their actual intellectual abilities. Greater confidence in one’s capacity to self-regulate their study behaviours, which may be enforced by positive feedback from peers and instructors, may further prompt a willingness of students to use adaptive coping skills.

Holtby’s research includes evidence that grit may increase as people become older and is a somewhat fluid personality trait. Much of one’s personality forms during childhood and adolescence, but adults can increase their own grit by honing their work ethic and resilience. In essence, adults can learn to take on the traits of naturally grittier people and to use the top five coping strategies associated with not only grit, but also reduced math anxiety and higher academic performance in general:

  • Strategizing. By making an effort to understand the causes of an academic difficulty and independently devising a plan to prevent it from happening again, students gain a sense of autonomy over their own work and experience a decrease in anxiety levels.
  • Commitment. Developing an understanding of one’s personal goals and assessing the value of persevering through a particular obstacle in terms of how well it will aid in fulfilling one’s long-term objectives makes it easier to make decisions and to devote time to worthwhile activities.
  • Self-encouragement. This skill involves strengthening one’s emotional regulation capacities and developing a positive self-esteem independent of external situations. In Holtby’s study, students who reported being more dedicated to their long-term goals also reported significantly greater reliance on positive reframing coping strategies, including self-encouragement.
  • Comfort-seeking. Fostering an emotionally supportive social network and gaining encouragement from others is critical to academic and career success.
  • Help-seeking. A particularly important skill to employ in studies of mathematics, reaching out to others with more knowledge/experience for assistance in fixing the problem is critical to both academic success and emotional well-being. This is the only coping strategy of the five that is not significantly correlated with grit, but is still certainly correlated with performance.

Holtby’s study found that students who actively made greater use of the strategizing and commitment coping mechanisms in combination reported relatively low levels of math anxiety – lower still than those students for whom grit was simply an innate trait but who did not engage with any of these coping skills. Use of the help-seeking skill, similarly, was found to be predictive of higher test scores in math classes. Researchers, controlling for initial skill level, determined that students who reach out for help when they get stuck mature mathematically at a much faster rate, as well as exhibit greater emotional well-being.

Additionally, these five coping strategies, employed in the academic context, have positive effects on both students’ learning and psychological functioning, putting students who are proactive and independent in their coping at lower risk for mental health problems, anxiety included. Using adaptive coping strategies, such as the above five, may lead to less intense, and decreased rates of burnout.

Students who find themselves dealing with above-average anxiety in relation to the pressure to perform in math courses ought to bear in mind that this is not a reflection of their actual abilities. If these students can work on fostering a more realistic and positive self image, in addition to utilizing adaptive means of dealing with academic anxiety, they need not rule out further studies in math. Modelling one’s behaviour on the natural tendencies of people who display high amounts of grit, and learning techniques of resilience to encourage the development of one’s own grit, will have positive implications for raw academic success as well as overall health and feelings of fulfillment.


  1. Holtby, N. M. (2018). Grit, Coping, and Math Anxiety: Examining the Pathways Through Which Devotion to Long-Term Goals May Promote Student Well-being. University of Toronto. 1-34.
  2. MacCann, C., Fogarty, G. J., Zeidner, M., & Roberts, R. D. (2011). Coping mediates the relationship between emotional intelligence (EI) and academic achievement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36(1), 60-70.
  3. Skinner, E., Pitzer, J., & Steele, J. (2013). Coping as part of motivational resilience in school: A multidimensional measure of families, allocations, and profiles of academic coping. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 73(5), 803-835.