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Math Anxiety: What It Is And How To Defeat It

Let me guess… the question that is currently floating through your brain is as follows: what the heck is “math anxiety?” While it may sound bizarre and made up, math anxiety is an actual condition that is quite common amongst students. It is similar to other sorts of anxiety or fear a person might encounter when doing something that is personally terrifying such as public speaking, interacting with strangers, or being around scary animals. The symbols and the operations can feel overwhelming for some, and that can trigger a subsequent anxiety reaction that completely stifles one’s brain and prevents a person from properly absorbing any material.

The Cause Of Math Anxiety

Math anxiety is a learned reaction. Students who have negative experiences with math early on tend to have bad emotions and limiting beliefs tied to mathematics. Once these reactions and beliefs are established, students will subconsciously return to those bad feelings whenever mathematics is brought up. When a student approaches math with low self-confidence, poor emotions, and an overall belief that he/she will be unable to grasp the concepts, the snowball of anxiety builds even more. The inevitable difficulty with the new concepts reinforces the limiting belief, and the student continues to feel stifled and defeated.

There are several underlying factors that provide excellent fuel for these negative emotions and beliefs to materialize. These are commonly held misnomers about the field of mathematics. First and foremost, there is the erroneous notion that math is a confusing, convoluted subject matter that is inherently difficult to grasp. Many people believe that the inability to understand math is normal, and that there are a chosen few that enjoy and understand mathematics (while the rest of the population must simply accept their poor understanding as an unlucky genetic trait).

There are other ridiculous misconceptions that cloud young students’ minds. For example, there is a distasteful attitude in the U.S. that women are naturally less adept with mathematics than men. Parents and educators seem to promulgate the idea that below average mathematics skills are par for the course for female students. This is a toxic and utterly false belief, and the passive acceptance of this attitude furthers this nonsensical notion. My parents, for example, had a completely different perspective when raising my sister. My dad encouraged her throughout school and insisted that mathematical comprehension was of the utmost importance. Moreover, he cemented within her the belief that she could perform at the highest level if she chose to apply herself. As a result, she went on to earn an 800 on the math portion of the SAT, a 5 on both of her calculus AP exams, and a chemical engineering degree from MIT. Not too shabby. Yes, my sister is very bright, but a key component to her success was a proper mentality and a solid inner belief.

Finally, some people have the backwards notion that you are either creative or logical. If you fall into the former category, math will simply not be part of your repertoire. This is patently false. At the end of the day, math is a highly creative endeavor. It requires a great deal of complex thinking and clever manipulation that is completely creative in nature. If you look at music production and song writing, an activity that would most certainly be identified as a creative pursuit, there is a great deal of overlap with mathematics. Music is bound by mathematic rules that allow for all sorts of manipulation within the scope of major and minor scales. This is akin to variable manipulation in Algebra and Calculus. It’s funny, but most people presume that an affinity for music comes with a general inability to understand math. Nothing could be further from the truth.

How To Solve Math Anxiety

Yes, math anxiety is solvable, just like any other potentially debilitating self-limiting belief. Below are my top four suggestions for tackling this unsightly menace.

1. Seek To Understand The Concepts Behind The Formulas – most students who struggle with math attempt to memorize formulas and then apply them in a highly mechanical manner. While this approach might yield favorable results for easier problems, it falters when it comes to more difficult permutations. Instead of simply sticking to rote memorization, students should seek to understand the principles behind the formulas. For example, it is one thing recognize that a variable can be isolated by adding and subtracting variables and constants, but it is something entirely different to understand the concept that equations are like little seesaws that remain stable so long as you affect both sides equally. Doing something to one side will throw it off balance and topple it, but carefully modifying both sides of the equation proportionately allows one to manipulate the whole thing while preserving its integrity and message. Once this concept is firm in a student’s mind, the application of the rules becomes much easier and more enjoyable.

2. Eradicate Self-Limiting Beliefs – if someone feel anxious when he/she sits down to tackle a math problem, it’s likely because he/she thinks that math greatness is unattainable. Take my word for it… this is a false belief. But students can’t just take my word for it; they need to actually internally accept the idea that they are capable of performing well in math. One awesome method (that some might denounce as hokey) is to adopt a math related mantra. A mantra is a positive saying that is to be repeated in one’s head or out loud. For example, a sample mantra could be “I am awesome at math,” or “I can understand anything.” A student should choose one that resonates with him/her, and then repeat it several times when he/she begins a math assignment, starts an exam, or experiences any trouble working through math problems. The cool thing about mantras is that people can actually rewire their brains and extract their self-limiting beliefs with enough practice.

3. Get Extra Help – for those who feel stifled by mathematics, asking questions in class can create more anxiety and stress. Because struggling students often refrain from digging deeper in class, their progress and confidence are further hampered. If this is the case, the best solution is to get outside help. Working with a tutor or a teacher outside of the classroom creates a pressure free environment for the student to ask questions and have concepts explained in a carefully tailored manner. If the classroom setting is not working, a helping hand can slide everything neatly into place. Then, once the student’s confidence is bolstered and he/she begins to feel comfortable, the extra help can eventually be removed.

4. Perform Practice Problems Before An Exam – the biggest mistake I see young students make is that they don’t do practice problems before an exam. What is their preferred method of studying? They review the textbook and look over their notes the night before a big test. While that is a highly effective method of studying for most classes, this will not cut it for math. Not at all. Instead, students must develop a habit of doing a number of practice problems before an exam. This will not only uncover any problem areas and weaknesses, but it will serve to firm up concepts in a remarkable way. When it comes to math, only practice makes perfect.

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