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'Math Anxiety' is Real, Even if You're Good at Math

by Katie Moritz
March 28, 2017 | Living

Do you break out in a cold sweat when it's time to calculate a tip? Is adding up cash and change when checking out at the grocery store (with a long line behind you, of course) the stuff of your nightmares?

If so, you're not alone. As many as 25 percent of four-year college students and 80 percent of community college students experience "math anxiety," and there's no reason those feelings should stop once students graduate.

What is math anxiety?

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It's simply a fear of doing math, explained Julianne Herts, a Ph.D. student in the University of Chicago's Human Performance Lab. It can be triggered by the thought of doing math or by being asked to do an actual mathematical task—like if you're put on the spot to calculate a tip or required to complete a timed multiplication test.

At the lab, Herts and her colleagues study math anxiety levels by asking subjects how the thought of doing different math-based activities makes them feel.

A lot of people feel anxious about doing math," she said.

We also know math anxiety exists from hearing people talk about it in the real world, said Alana Foley, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Chicago's Cognitive Development Lab.

"You'll hear people say, 'I hate math, it makes me nervous,'" she said.

Even math people can have math anxiety

Think back to high school or college. If you were a high-performing student but still got stressed out when it was time to take a math test, that's totally normal, Foley and Herts said. Math people aren't immune to math anxiety, and their performance might be even more impacted by anxiety than low-performing students who experience it, according to a study conducted by Foley, Herts and other researchers.

math anxiety rewire pbs

"It's a kind of interesting counterintuitive finding," Foley said. "There's this broad association that if you have higher math anxiety you have lower performance. Among the students who are high-performing, some of those high-performing students have high levels of math anxiety."

The researchers looked at findings of 40 lab experiments along with data collected by the Program for International Student Assessments, which administers standardized tests to 15-year-old students around the world.

In 63 of the 64 education systems across the globe that participated in PISA exams in 2012, students who reported higher levels of math anxiety performed more poorly in math compared to their peers with low math anxiety, the researchers wrote in their study.

But "the negative correlation between math anxiety and math performance was stronger among students who are high-performing," Foley said. The performance of these students seems to be even more stifled by anxiety than that of the less-strong math students.

Even though they're still performing (better than their peers) their anxiety is taking a bigger toll on them," Herts said.

Why is that? One possible explanation is that these high-performing anxious students have a lot of mental resources, but they're being spent on worrying about math rather than doing the math, the researchers said. This keeps them from reaching their full potential.

math anxiety rewire pbs

"The problem is, when they're math anxious, that anxiety creates worries and that interferes with (information) storage," Foley said. "If they're math anxious those resources are monopolized by the math anxiety so they're not able to use them."

You know when you're so stressed out about having an important conversation at work that you can't even remember what you said afterward? It's kind of like that.

"If you have a lot of resources available, and anxiety is tying up those resources, you're kind of worse off," Herts said.

Why it matters

At work and in our personal lives, we use math all the time. Sure, we can whip out our smartphone calculators when we need to, but there's something to be said about embracing numbers rather than being scared off by them, the researchers said.

Understanding numbers can help us to make sense of the world around us, especially important public policy that impacts us, Herts said.

It's important to understand statistics," she said. "When people are afraid of statistics that's bad for our democracy. If you're avoiding math that's going to be detrimental to your understanding of the world in adulthood."

Math anxiety could also be limiting the talent pool for important science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs, Foley said. Students who are high-performing may decide that STEM fields aren't for them because of uncomfortable math anxiety.

"They're the students who have the potential to go into fields that use mathematics all the time, and so if they're math anxious and they're not doing as well in math as they could, that could be a barrier," she said.

How can you combat math anxiety?

math anxiety rewire pbs

If you still get anxious about math, "it's not a hopeless case," Herts said. There are things you can do to ease your stress so you can focus on the tasks you need to complete.

One is telling yourself that the nervous feelings you have will actually help you do better on that math exam, Herts said. In one study, graduate school entry exam scores were actually improved when test-takers were told that their stress would help them rather than hurt them—"reappraising those emotions and interpreting them differently," Herts said.

Writing about your feelings before taking a math test also works, she said. "Getting all those worries out of your head and onto the paper" can clear your mind and help you focus on the test rather than your stress.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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