Don’t let math stress you out

how math stress can ruin your life

As your teacher passes out the math test, your palms turn sweaty. You notice that your heart has begun to race. Glancing down at the page, you suddenly forget those operations on which you had drilled only a few days earlier. Do you perform all additions first in a complex calculation, or all multiplications? What’s the multiplication table again for 9’s? Oh, you know it — well you’re pretty sure, right? Suddenly, you start to doubt a lot of things that you “know.”

If that sounds familiar, you might suffer from math anxiety.

Or maybe not. Even researchers who study this condition note that it can be surprisingly hard to define math anxiety. It’s also hard to identify precisely how many people suffer from it. After all, it’s not an officially recognized mental disorder in the way that depression or schizophrenia is.

To diagnose math anxiety, researchers administer a questionnaire. It asks things like: “How anxious would you feel about being given a set of division problems to solve on paper?” Some people will rate their reactions as being very panicky. Others have no stress — even if they know they aren’t numerical wizards. So how anxious someone feels tends to fall along a spectrum.

Those who score high on these surveys about stress over making numerical calculations will be labeled math anxious. The exact share who get this diagnosis, however, will vary, depending on where researchers choose to draw the line at what counts as high.

In general, people who panic over their math skills tend to do worse in math classes than do people who don’t mind numbers. But that’s not always true. “Just because you’re math anxious, that doesn’t always mean you’re bad at math,” notes Rose Vukovic. She’s an educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Math anxiety affects people of all ages. It can lead to poor performance in math classes. And its impacts don’t end at graduation. Throughout life, this type of stress can stand in the way of mastering skills or projects in a host of areas that rely on computations.

But the good news is that the problem is manageable. Researchers are finding ways people can cope with this stress — maybe even to the point of making numbers their friends.

What is math anxiety?

People often think of math anxiety as a problem in middle- and high-school students. But by age 12, kids already will have had many opportunities for bad experiences with math. So panicking over working with numbers may start much earlier. Math anxiety has emerged in some as early as first grade, Vukovic points out.

Understanding the issue can be a kind of chicken-and-egg problem, however. Does math anxiety cause low performance, or do skill problems trigger the stress? The two probably feed on each other, Vukovic says. Indeed, she argues, if low math knowledge were the only issue, building up those skills should erase the problem. Instead, research shows, simply dealing with the anxiety can improve math performance. That suggests that anxiety alone can sabotage math performance, regardless of someone’s skills.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety, it turns out, can interfere with the brain’s “working memory.” This type of memory allows the mind to hold onto several different pieces of information at once. Mark Ashcraft is a psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There, he studies the role of anxiety in math cognition — how people mentally learn and do math. “When you are math anxious,” he finds, “anxiety steals away working-memory resources.”

As if theft of working memory isn’t bad enough, math anxiety also can hurt, literally. Ian Lyons is a psychologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Sian Beilock is a psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. Four years ago, when Lyons was Beilock’s student at the University of Chicago, the two conducted a study that looked at people’s brains when they thought about doing a math problem.

In people with high math anxiety, just anticipating doing math turned on areas in the brain associated with pain. In other words, math anxiety can hurt! Interestingly, they did not find the same response when people were actually doing the math. It was the worrying about doing math that was the problem.

Why is math different?

Many issues can trigger anxiety. It might be the anticipation of moving to a new city, of confronting some bully or of remembering your lines on stage during the performance of a play in front of an auditorium full of strangers. But even among academic subjects, researchers note, when it comes to anxiety, math seems special.

You don’t hear people saying they have “chemistry anxiety” or “social studies anxiety.” Likewise, people sometimes say they’re bad at math almost as a badge of honor. In contrast, no one would be proud of the fact that they were bad at reading!

How to manage the stress

Math computations are an important element in many careers in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM. So stress over math can serve as a barrier to students who want to become scientists or engineers. Beyond that, math is used in many everyday activities, from cooking to shopping. And math anxiety is just plain unpleasant. (Remember that pain-area activation in the brain?)

So if you stress out over math, what should you do?

The main thing seems to be to separate that stress from your thoughts about math. Ashcraft at the University of Nevada recommends compartmentalizing it. “I try to encourage people to think about setting the anxiety aside,” he says. “Engage in the worry later.”


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