Math Anxiety and How to Overcome It

As a tutor and a teacher, the most prevalent issue I have encountered inhibiting students’ growth is a deep-rooted terror associated with mathematics. More than difficulty with concepts or even a poor foundation, math anxiety damages a person’s ability to succeed. This stress plagues learners of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities, and levels. Even more unsettling, this disturbing roadblock is one of the most difficult to overcome with many never recovering from that math fear.

When meeting with a student or class for the first time, I always mention math anxiety. Often I’ve found that it is this elephant in the room that no one wants to address but is hovering over everyone’s heads weighing them down. By bringing this monster out in the open, we can observe the problem together and find common ground in defeating it as a team. Once my pupils know I am aware of their negative feelings toward the subject I hold so dear, they are much more likely to open up. Even more so they are willing to confide in one another as they realize that they are not the only one suffering such a burden.

It may surprise you to know that I have found in my experiences that 100% of the kiddos I’ve tutored and/or taught have had math anxiety at some point which lead them to me. Yup. Both students who are striving to hit top of their class as well as those who are ecstatic to finally see a passing STAAR test score alike have had math fear keep them from their goals. So with such a common theme holding our youth back from academic success, why hasn’t someone come up with an answer?

MATH ANXIETY

The key word here is ANXIETY. Math anxiety is just one form of excessive worry a person can experience. An anxiety disorder is a condition so severe that it can cause someone to have panic attacks and numerous other symptoms you can read about here. When a student experiences nervousness in math, it could be part of this larger diagnosed problem, but more likely it is not so severe.

Much more common is to find that a person’s apprehension is directed entirely at math. Unfortunately, this does not make overcoming the anxiety any easier. While recognizing test anxiety across multiple subjects or difficulty coping with daily struggles can be crucial to helping to identify the best course for addressing the severity of math anxiety someone is facing, we are still left with the task of somehow succeeding in class.

The heart of the issue is that so many students, parents, and teachers simply write this off as normal or miss it altogether. This stress, however, is paralyzing to those studying mathematics regardless of whether they are suffering from a full disorder or simply terror every time they enter the classroom for a math lesson. Fear has no place in a learning environment as it inhibits a student from performing at their best.

When the mind experiences duress, it takes up thinking space, to state it simply. This leads to distractions as well as forgetting concepts that may have previously been no problem. I like to give this example in class:

What time is it?!?

Have you ever woken up late and been in a rush to get to work or school on time? Most of us have, and it’s not a feeling that anyone enjoys. You’re rushing around to get through your routine but still look presentable for wherever you are going. In your head you are trying to figure out what you can skip, constantly checking the clock to see if you’re on pace, and sort of focusing on each task at hand. Yet for some reason your hands can’t seem to remember how to hold a toothbrush and your legs keep ending up in the same pant leg.

You’re stressed. And that anxiety is keeping you from accomplishing tasks so simple that on most mornings you probably can’t even remember doing them because they are so practiced that they are second nature. Now imagine that same level of panic in math class. If you struggle so hopelessly with such mindless tasks, how much more difficult would it be to comprehend an entirely new subject or practice a concept that you’ve never experienced before?

This is math anxiety. While some may experience it more or less than others, some may call it test anxiety because it rears its ugly head during exams, and still others might even be lead to believe they are just not good at math due to its influence, all who suffer are held back from their fullest capabilities. So then this begs the question: “How can I stop the anxiety?”

Math Anxiety < Math Knowledge

I’ll just get it out of the way that, yes, of course if you know more more math then obviously you will feel less stressed out about needing to complete math problems. Alas, it is also a statement that really doesn’t help those whose fear stems from not grasping concepts. If you are struggling to comprehend a method or having trouble daily in class, then hearing “you need to know more math” is not only useless, it is insulting.

How awful does it feel to have someone approach you in something you’ve failed at despite giving it your all? I never tell my pupils that they merely need to study more or work harder to overcome their fears. The only result would be increasing their frustration because most students are not only aware that they need to work to solve a problem but are also genuinely trying up to the point that they begin to feel that it is a futile attempt.

It deeply saddens me the number of kids and adults I encounter every day whose first words when they realize I am a math teacher are “I hate math!” I do not expect everyone to share in my passion for the subject. No, instead my anguish is derived from the stories I have seen and heard from my students where they were shunned had a negative experience in class that forever turned them away from mathematics. It is absolutely heartbreaking to see a student failing assignment after assignment when they’ve shown me how capable they are but cannot overcome some past event that holds them back every single day.

That said, there is a reasoning behind all of the need to know more. You cannot succeed in any subject, sport, or career without practice and growth, which can be painful. As I’ve said, I would never tell my students that studying or “working harder” will overcome their fears, but those efforts do make a difference in their learning. It is an undeniable fact that repetition builds up skills, and developing math ability is a key to future success across every career path. Thus, growth in mathematics is necessary.

Part of that growth will be struggle. Pain. And even stress. When you light weights to build physical strength, you literally tear muscles so that when they heal they grow back stronger. This is how people tone their physique (mixed with fat loss of course). Academia is no different. Contrary to popular belief, struggling is not bad, which I covered in my post I Want My Student to Struggle. Notice, however, that fear is not part of that equation. (Haha, math pun…)

Now that we have addressed the necessity for learning math and its place in feeling more comfortable in class, let’s tackle the true issue at hand. We know that increasing our ability to work through math problems is an obvious start, and you’re in a good place to clear up some topics with supplemental instruction (ahem…check out my lessons…cough cough). But beyond that, how can we focus on the math anxiety?

De-Stressing and Re-Conditioning

What we need is an actionable plan to grab our full attention and to help re-train us when we walk into class. Math anxiety, and anxiety in general for that matter, comes down to stress. Stress, in itself, is not a bad thing. The internal strain we feel in situations that require us to act is actually quite good in situations where you might need to move out of the way of a falling object or dive away from an incoming bus. It is in the classroom that we are forced to sit and just dwell on the emotion where our mind shuts down.

Thus we need to recondition our thought process in order to de-stress and take actions that make sense for our situation: math! The plan I try to get my kiddos to follow looks something like this:

  • Pinpoint
  • Ask
  • Meet
  • Partner
  • Expect
  • Repeat

PAMPER yourself!

Pinpoint When the Math Anxiety Began

While it is true that the way we are wired can influence how we handle daily life, in most cases, math aversion is learned not inherited. Thus, typically there is one moment in time, some event, that sets a person down the path of “I hate math.” Perhaps it is just popular in our culture to avoid an issue and discriminate against it when we don’t understand it, and we choose to do so in order to save face in front of our peers. Maybe a teacher/tutor/parent had a misunderstanding with you that left you feeling unheard or unimportant.

Regardless, it is up to you to look back and really dive into yourself to find the time or series of times that really began conditioning you to fear math. For some, this task may seem almost comical remembering the time something that seemed so harmless occurred. But for others this can be a frightening experience. Reliving those memories can sometimes be as traumatic as going through them initially. As difficult as it may be, however, this is the first step for a reason!

Once you get into that mindset and can at least somewhat remember what you were thinking and feeling when this all started, you can begin to dissect what really happened with a slightly more mature mindset. In some cases, it may be necessary to forgive a teacher for being human and simply making a mistake that you took to heart. I know as an educator, this is one of the most terrifying parts of being in front of people introducing them to topics. We make errors just like everyone else, which could affect a student forever. As such, we have to be open to correction and able to admit those mistakes.

A simple slip of the tongue, you mishearing what they said, or not being able to comprehend what you heard at a younger age can all be such frustrating revelations as you look back. In worse situations, there could be some form of abuse that occurred or even a genuinely bad situation that you are already aware of. How did it make you feel? Why did you associate that feeling with math? These can be very difficult to answer and may take time for you to fully dissect as well as come to terms with.

Just realize that recognizing these feelings is merely meant to get you thinking about math in a new way, not completely change your outlook. For that we have to carry on through the PAMPERing.

Ask Yourself Some Questions When the math anxiety hits

Now that you are beginning to question your own thinking, let’s pick up steam and start learning to reason through the stress. I’ll be the first to admit, this is going to be the hardest part of the process for many people because it involves changing patterns. We find comfort in our routines, and altering them is never comfortable. Though it may be odd to imagine your math anxiety bringing you anything but pain, remember it has been your primary method of coping with mathematics for quite a while.

The trick here is not only to attempt to diffuse some of your anxiety but also to distract your mind into thinking something else. Fear is a difficult emotion because its very good at operating subconsciously. Therefore to diminish its effects, at least somewhat, we have to focus very hard. We don’t need to acknowledge the fear because quite honestly it usually just worries us more, at least from what I’ve seen students do. Instead, we occupy our thoughts with a few questions.

What’s this called?

This is probably my favorite. Regrouping and reclaiming your wandering thoughts is a great way to focus in on what is right in front of you. Just asking immediately causes you to remember that you’re in class or studying and need to glean at least something from this lesson. Even if you are struggling and can barely keep up, this one bit of information will help you later. After all, you can’t Google a topic or tell a tutor what you were working on unless you know what its name is!

What do I recognize?

Ah, another great way to find some peace. Humans fear the unknown, especially when that unknown is defined as x. (Another terrible math pun…) Trying to find some piece of the puzzle on the board that you can understand or are at least familiar with can alleviate at least a small fraction of the anxiety creeping up. If you fall into the habit of trying to latch on to the steps that you feel somewhat comfortable with you may even prevent the fear from crippling you, with time. And best of all, this is the most effective way to learn math: taking things one step at a time and advancing just a little farther each time!

Why am I scared?

Ok, I hear you. What a stupid question! I’m terrified and freaking out because I’m trying to learn math! But that isn’t the entire truth, is it? Earlier we talked about pinpointing exactly where things took a turn for the worse. This is why. Remembering that even or series of events can actually bring you back from the edge. Don’t allow yourself to believe that this current topic is so devastatingly difficult that its hopeless. Instead you now know that the panic stems from something in your past. While it doesn’t ease the pain, it opens up possibilities for taking in new information.

Who can help me?

Asking yourself who your support is can bring the most drastic relief in the moment when math anxiety is at its worst. This question paired with the next two points help you realize you are not alone. Everyone struggles in math, so why not do so together? With this in mind, you should have friends, or tutors, or parents, or teachers ready to get through the learning with you. These people you trust can be your greatest asset against the worries that plague you, which leads to our next step.

Meet new teachers and tutors with an open mind

You’ve got to give each new teacher you meet a chance. A few of us have had that one teacher that made an amazing impact on our lives. Truly they changed the way we saw the world and introduced us to our passions. Unfortunately EVERYONE has had a teacher that wasn’t exactly pleasant. That’s not to say those teachers were bad. No, instead they just didn’t get along with us for whatever reason. Alas, it does not change the fact that the experience soured the taste of that subject the entire year.

I’m aware that not every teacher out there is going to match every student, but you can do your part to give them a chance. If you enter into every new class with the mindset that math is awful and so are the people who teach it, it really is your fault. Regardless of a their behavior, you previously made up your mind what you wanted to believe. All I ask is that you simply allow them the opportunity to prove you wrong. Just this tiny shift in mindset might open the door to allowing this new teacher to be one of those people you can trust to help with the stress.

One of the reasons I like to meet people for free before tutoring them is that we both need to know this relationship is going to work. Learning works best when two people connect. I personally strive to find a way to relate to anyone so that I can make mathematics mean something to each person I teach. Through this initial meeting, I can not only gauge what someone is needing instructionally but also if they can enjoy the way I teach. I know I appreciate it when a new pupil will meet me half way, so I’m guessing other teachers appreciate it, too.

Partner Up!

Now that you’ve given your teacher a chance, it’s time to take control of at least one aspect of your learning. That means finding a friend, parent, tutor, other that you can really trust to help you when you get stuck. And there are two trains of thought here on how to choose:

  • They know math.
  • They know you.

Ideally you are good friends with someone who is pretty alright at math (or great at it even), but the world is seldom ideal. If not, don’t worry! This is where teachers and tutors come in. You can find one who you click with that knows how to present ideas in a way you understand. And it is important to shop around. Unless your first meeting with a teacher or tutor is just life-changing that math suddenly doesn’t seem so suffocating, try a few. See who suits you best. Maybe your a female more comfortable with a female teacher. Maybe you like someone older. Younger. Same ethnicity. Same background. Socioeconomic status. Whatever your preference is, you need to feel comfortable coming to this person for help.

That is why I always recommend finding a friend even if you have outside instructional help. No outside resource will know you on the same level as your true friends. They can get you to open up and break down if you need to without judgement. Even if you both (or your group) all feel lost together, at least you know you’re not in it alone. Struggle through it as a team and come to conclusions. No, having them working on problems isn’t going to make you better much like having a friend do push-ups won’t make you stronger, but more than one mind is more likely to find a solution or be able to explain a problem.

Whether you choose to find one person, or ten, lean on them. If you find just a tutor, or hire someone to teach you then go immediately after to study with friends, make sure you communicate regularly. Blow off steam. Tackle the anxiety together so that class doesn’t seem as intimidating as it would standing against you by yourself.

Expect What to Expect

You need to both set some expectations for yourself and know what to expect in trying to overcome your math anxiety. First and foremost, expect some setbacks. Working through this process is not going to magically erase your stress overnight. Know that you’ll still feel some pangs of fear for a while. You will probably still struggle with concepts. And that’s OK! If you are surprised by these temporary failures, you will get discouraged. Knowing that you don’t always have to be perfect, however, will take the pressure off of you and let you improve at your own pace.

Next, expect to put in work. Going against what has been comfortable for years is not going to be easy. You will have to show up to class each and every time ready to give it your all. In case you’re somehow not aware, that can and will be exhausting, which again is why you should expect to have bad days. These are the times where you’ll lean on your friends for support. Let them know how you are doing so they can encourage you and remind you of your progress.

Finally, set some expectations for yourself. The end goal of completely defeating your math fear is great, but it is a long way off. Having some minor aspirations and milestones to realize your efforts are working can make or break any process. If you are trying to lose weight, recognizing every 5 lbs you lose forces you to accept you are achieving your goal one step at a time. Just like weight loss, acknowledging that you made it through two classes without freaking out or did better on this quiz than the last makes a huge difference mentally when preparing you for the last step.

Repeat the process

None of the points here are meant to be an end-all fix to your math anxiety. Whatever stress you are suffering academically, you will have to put forth effort consistently to see results. And even after you’ve subdued your fears, they might come back! It is so easy to fall right back into the same patterns, especially those that we used to cope with difficult situations. Thus we have to be prepared to accept when we struggle or relapse into panic, pick ourselves up, and continue the strategies we have been using.

Practice makes perfect. Repeating push-ups makes you stronger. Repeating your diet meals fosters weight loss. Practicing math problems increases your math fluency. And repeatedly PAMPERing yourself can alleviate at least a little of your anxiety.

The short version

Math anxiety. Math fears. Panic attacks. Stress. Math hate. Whatever you want to call it, it affects most of us at some point. And for some it lasts a lifetime. But there are ways to control the aversion and learn to succeed. Hopefully this can make a difference in even one person’s life. Maybe share it with someone you know who is struggling if you think it could help. My ultimate goal is to help others succeed, and this is one of the biggest roadblocks in that path.

Together we can change the culture surrounding mathematics and make it more accessible to everyone. Students can be in math class and not be miserable. And if you’re reading this trying to overcome your own anxiety, know that I applaud you and recognize your efforts.

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