If your aversion to maths is making you depressed, firstly you should not feel alone as this is a very common problem. Secondly, according to an educational psychologist and maths expert, Anne Siety, who wrote the book ‘Who’s Afraid of Maths’ – not being good at maths is definitely not an indicator of low intelligence!

Unfortunately, when foundational mathematics skills are lacking, it can create resistance to even creative maths activities. This understandably decreases motivation and the cycle continues.

It is not far-fetched to hear about such severe maths aversions that even physical symptoms like pain, headaches, vomiting, anxiety, and abdominal pain can result. This really shows how the impact of psychological fear, even one about learning mathematics, can impact the body.

On the contrary, students with in-depth mathematics skills and who really know how to do math, are reported to experience great pleasure when solving problems during their maths activities.

There are many reasons why students battle when it comes to learning mathematics and these can create fear and even a phobia about maths. However, if you want to know how to get better at math and want to know why some people love math and others fear it, then keep reading because this article is for you.

Can Bad Experiences Trigger a Fear of Maths?

Even highly successful, lovers of maths are the first to admit that the traditional school system for learning mathematics is not the most inspiring!

When it comes to how to do math, most mathematics learning follows the explanation of a rule, followed by training and practice. The problem with this approach is that it is largely disconnected from the real world and fails to bring in relevance and maths activities that would result in a more practical and vibrant learning and essentially, maths made easy.

On the surface, maths can appear boring and is often heavy on the worksheets and textbooks exercises, and light on the more creative activities that fall under the topic, maths made easy and where some would argue, that the real foundations for mathematics skills are learned.

Sadly, society and mainstream schools have associated ability in maths with intelligence, even using it as a selection criterion. This bias or stigma can create frustration and shame that simply causes a mental block and students declaring that they just don’t know how to do math. But this is all a misnomer that can be rectified with the right maths activities and the right maths teacher.

When one understands that the psychology behind the fear of maths starts at a young age, simply because it is a subject that depends on cumulative knowledge whereby each chapter needs to be mastered, before proceeding to the next, it makes sense that if you get lost along the way, it can lose its enjoyment.

In short, without the foundations, you cannot build the tower!

To risk coming undone learning mathematics, one should act as early as possible to avoid challenges during a school career that will ultimately affect one’s choice of subjects and tertiary education.

Maths: All in the Mind?

maths problem written on blackboard
The traditional classroom setting often doesn't provide the level of engagement required to bring Maths to life. - Source: Pixabay

There have always seemed to be those who are effortlessly gifted when it comes to how to do math and then those who struggle and are either hiding from it or trying to find out how to get better at math.

What then is this mysterious quality that seems to make it seem easier for some than others? There are those who claim to be undaunted by unknown variables, including knowing how to do math and who were excited about numbers from a young age.

According to Florian, a mathematics doctor, it goes back to those first story sums at primary school. You know those ones: “if Peter has 12 marbles and loses 4 …”

Florian is an example of someone who is constantly in awe and wonder of maths and continues to delve into its mysteries. Looking at his life, it makes sense that developing mathematics skills to a combination of being able to synthesise information, use your institution, and to the surprise of many, have creativity!

Think about it, was Einstein not reportedly a great daydreamer?

So with that said, we should not really say that it requires more ‘left brain’ activity, which is the hemisphere for analysis and reason if you want to know how to get better at math. In actuality, maths activities require both the right side of the brain (described at the centre of creativity and emotion) as well as the left side!

In reality, these two brain hemispheres actually work side by side. So if the left deals with the processing of data, the right is concerned with overview and simultaneity. It’s more accurate to say that we all make full use of both sides of our brain, whether that’s when practising our mathematics skills or doing something else.

How to Identify Maths Fears

Like many other subjects, maths requires effort, practice, and memory.

Why is it then that some people are paralysed by fear that prevents their own learning, while for others maths is easy and comes naturally?

Cognitive blocks concerning learning mathematics are often related to painful memories concerning specific teachers. Impatient, strict, intimidating, frightening, and cold are some of the descriptions used by wounded students today.

But those who want to know how to get better at math, it must be realised that maths is an abstract subject so by shutting yourself off to the teacher, you shut down your opportunity to gain mathematics skills. This is exactly how children often don’t get the maths help that they need.

It is of paramount importance to not allow a relational problem or phobia to interfere with how to do math. If this is you, try and identify any emotional roots to your maths fears, find the place where you got stuck and if necessary, backtrack to re-learn those aspects, this time with the right teacher.

Overcoming Maths Fears

Psychological blocks concerning maths activities are interesting and often it is recommended that these are unpacked with a professional. According to Anne Siety, there is what is called a categorisation of errors that concern children and their relationship with how to do math:

  • Symbolic errors which relate to a child’s method of questioning and character;
  • Inconsequential or small errors;
  • Errors of progression occur when a child successfully learns a new rule and forgets the preceding one;
  • Poetic errors are word or terminology errors

The role of parents is really important to help the child regain confidence and there are many maths activities that can remove mental blocks and change the course of a child’s future career.

Maths Made Easy: A Few Tricks

girl playing game on tablet
There are many fun maths activities like puzzles, and online games and quizzes that can help your child enjoy Maths. - Source. Unsplash

Here are a few methods to help students get back on the road so that they can continue to learn maths in an enjoyable and fulfilling way for the rest of their school careers.

  • Emphasise and place value where there has been success;
  • Praise all attempts to succeed;
  • Never punish for lack of apparent studiousness;
  • Listen to worries and fears;
  • Engage in fun maths activities like puzzles, quizzes, games, and flashcards

So why does maths either appeal or terrify?

To summarise, of course, there is the issue of natural aptitude. Secondly, if any trauma has been experienced through not meeting the cognitive predispositions (daydreamers or hyperactivity) during learning mathematics in one’s early years, these can affect learning in later years.

If you or anyone you know has fear surrounding the learning of mathematics, it is important to identify the difficulty as early on as possible and intervene with a private tutor and even a psychologist if necessary

Private maths tutors for every grade are easily available throughout South Africa on the Superprof website. You could search by location and even find someone near you who could offer maths lessons in your living room. However, if learning via webcam is easier that is also a possibility with a tutor from anywhere. What is important is that you find the right maths tutor for you.

This is where Superprof is also helpful because many tutors offer their first lesson for free so if you don’t connect with their personality, you could try someone else! Make sure that you use that first lesson to clearly communicate your problem areas. Remember that the main advantages of having a private tutor is that you can focus on the areas of maths that you need to, and work at your own pace and time.

Regardless of why you are struggling with maths, remember that it is an issue that can be solved by backtracking to identify when, where and why things went wrong and then by taking control by putting in that extra effort with the right person for you.

Maths is an important subject for both school and tertiary education. It is also used in our daily lives forever, so it is well worth coming up with a plan to make it enjoyable so that you can enjoy all the success that comes from knowing how to do math!

Need a Maths teacher?

Enjoyed this article?

5.00/5 - 1 vote(s)


Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.