When French mathematician Laurent Schwartz was in high school, he started to worry that he wasn’t smart enough to solve math problems. Maybe you know a similar feeling. You sit down to take a math test, and you feel your heart beat faster and your palms start to sweat. You get butterflies in your stomach, and you can’t concentrate. This phenomenon is called math anxiety, and if it happens to you, you’re not alone. Researchers think about 20% of the population suffers from it.
Some psychologists even consider it a diagnosable condition. But having mathematical anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bad at math – not even close. Laurent Schwartz went on to win the Fields Medal, the highest award in mathematics. People might think that they’re anxious about math because they’re bad at it, but it’s often the other way around. They’re doing poorly in math because they’re anxious about it. Some psychologists think that’s because math anxiety decreases a cognitive resource called working memory.
That’s the short-term memory system that helps you organize the information you need to complete a task. Worrying about being able to solve math problems, or not doing well on a test, eats up working memory, leaving less of it available to tackle the math itself. People can suddenly struggle with even basic math skills, like arithmetic, that they’ve otherwise mastered. Academic anxiety certainly isn’t limited to math, but it does seem to happen much more frequently, and cause more harm in that subject. So why would that be?
Researchers aren’t yet sure, but some studies suggest that the way children are exposed to math by their parents and teachers play a large part. If parents talk about math like something challenging and unfamiliar, children can internalize that. Teachers with math anxiety are also likely to spread it to their students. Pressure to solve problems quickly dials up stress even more. And in some cultures, being good at math is a sign of being smart in general. When the stakes are that high, it’s not surprising that students are anxious.
Even Maryam Mirzakhani, an influential mathematician who was the first woman to win the Fields Medal, felt unconfident and lost interest in mathematics because her math teacher in middle school didn’t think she was talented. So if you experience mathematical anxiety, what can you do? Relaxation techniques, like short breathing exercises, have improved test performance in students with math anxiety.
Writing down your worries can also help. This strategy may give you a chance to reevaluate a stressful experience, freeing up working memory. And if you have the chance, physical activity, like a brisk walk, deepens breathing and helps relieve muscle tension, preventing anxiety from building. You can also use your knowledge about the brain to change your mindset. The brain is flexible, and the areas involved in math skills can always grow and develop. This is a psychological principle called the growth mindset.
Thinking of yourself as someone who can grow and improve can actually help you grow and improve. If you’re a teacher or parent of young children, try being playful with math and focusing on the creative aspects. That can build the numerical skills that help students approach math with confidence later on. Importantly, you should give children the time and space to work through their answers.
And if you’re an administrator, make sure your teachers have the positive attitudes and mathematical confidence necessary to inspire confidence in all of their students. Also, don’t let anyone spread the myth that boys are innately better than girls at math. That is completely false. If you experience math anxiety, it may not help to just know that math anxiety exists. Or perhaps it’s reassuring to put a name to the problem. Regardless, if you take a look around yourself, the odds are good that you’ll see someone experiencing the same thing as you. Just remember that the anxiety is not a reflection of your ability, but it is something you can conquer with time and awareness.
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