How to Overcome Math Anxiety

Math Anxiety is a very real struggle for many learners in school today. It is not simply a ‘dislike’ of the subject, nor is it a question of laziness. Rather, math anxiety can cause a learner a real sense of fear, and this can paralyse them when faced with a trigger.  Let’s take a look at how this fear can be overcome.

Math anxiety can also cause learners to avoid the subject of maths altogether, or erupt in emotion because the task of working out the exam’s requirements seems too overwhelming. It can begin from the second a learner begins with maths in their very young schooling years, all the way up to matric.  This can cause a lifelong fear of potential problem solving or self-worth issues.

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Math Anxiety: The Cause And Condition

There are a variety of triggers for math anxiety which include time pressure and public sense of exposure.   According to Math Goodies, another trigger is the presence of an imposed authority. The fear can manifest when a learner, especially in the higher grades, decides or believes that they are ‘not good enough’ or they simply ‘won’t measure up’ to the high standard set to achieve an “A”. The three factors mentioned above can reinforce this belief, and then it can become a cycle of anxious thinking. The concept of university being the only option for someone who finishes matric can add to the pressure to perform. 

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Part of the vicious cycle that is math anxiety comes from the failure that accompanies an inability to really grasp the concept of maths, whether inside the classroom or in a tutoring session. Once someone freezes inside of the anxiety ‘loop,’ then it is almost an impossible task for them to pass maths papers and tests throughout the term. 

Math Anxiety: What Are The Signs?

Math anxiety is characterised by an avoidance of the subject or specific problems that may trigger the affected learner.  

  • Emotional Signs:
    Learners can become overwhelmed with emotion and fall into a depressive way of talking and thinking about themselves and maths.
    Some other telltale signs of math anxiety can include fatigue, a loss of interest, anxiety, irritability, appetite changes and can even lead to suicidal thoughts. One of the overarching factors to consider with the diagnosis of math anxiety is a pressure to perform,  in pressurised, time-limited testing environments. 
  • Physical Signs:
    Psychologists have found that people can respond physically to anxiety about maths whether they are children or adults. Much like other types of anxiety or
    Obsessive Compulsive related Disorders (OCD), math anxiety can cause stress hormones to be released in people struggling, which signals a perpetual ‘fight or flight’ response in the body. This can put strain and pressure on the endocrine system, which can cause utter exhaustion and fatigue in learners who struggle with this issue. 

Overcoming Math Anxiety

It may be helpful to remember that we live in a day and age that glorifies ‘instant gratification’ more than the idea of taking on a big, new challenge with patience, persistence, and endurance.

Maths is not a subject that connects well with this ‘quick fix’, societal mindset. It has been, and always will be, a subject that requires practice, patience and getting that extra support if you find yourself struggling. It really can boil down to forming a ‘growth’ mindset way of thinking and tackling the challenges. This is a new way of thinking about maths where a student is able to accept a challenge and is willing to give it their best shot.

Maths is not a subject that you can ‘cram’ at the last minute either, it takes practice throughout the term and constantly making the choice to think positive thoughts such as, “I can and will do my best.”

How to Take Action

Whether you personally suffer from math anxiety or have a child/learner who struggles with this, it’s important to know how to move towards overcoming it.  Here are some practical steps we came up with, based on some helpful input from an incredibly insightful high school teacher:

Recognise (Click here):

The first thing to do when it comes to overcoming anything in life is to recognise and acknowledge where you are at with it. There is so much freedom in being real and honest about your emotions and thinking behind something you’re struggling to overcome. Too often we sweep these kinds of conversations under the rug, because of the pressures around us. It’s totally necessary to face these things, with people we trust, so that we can take the right steps towards overcoming

Resources (Click here):

The next step to overcoming math anxiety is to recognise what resources are around you. Sometimes you might need help with where you can find the correct resources, but this is where the first step is so important.  You just need to acknowledge what the problem is, and then seek the help you need. Parents, teachers, tutors, and schools are usually full of incredible hands-on people and connections who are more than willing to help you navigate these issues. School counselors are also there to help you process difficult emotions, which can alleviate some of the tension.

Resilience (Click here):

Practice, practice, practice.  This applies to the challenging and more complex questions. Focus on developing skills and positive thinking methods within the context of what triggers the math anxiety for you. Perhaps consider some of these ideas  :

  • Practice writing exams under exam conditions ahead of time: no cell phones, strict time boundaries, and no interruptions. This can be a type of exposure therapy and can get you used to the pressure before you encounter the real thing. 
  • Answer papers by dealing with what you know before you tackle the more complicated questions. You can always go back to the more challenging equations when there is time at the end of the easier questions. 

Teachers: Dealing With Math Anxiety

As a teacher, handling learners with math anxiety is a delicate task. 

Research has shown that if teachers can encourage their students to tackle maths problems and equations from a different mindset, the experience of learning maths in any grade can become an empowering one, rather than an impossible feat. Here are some ideas to consider in the classroom:

  • Reframing the way we think about maths in the classroom and in extra lessons. This may look like opening a discussion in a classroom context of what some of the negative beliefs about maths are and who should or shouldn’t be good at maths. This can really open up the conversation and alleviate pressure while giving learners an opportunity to seek out the help they might be desperately needing. 
  • Allow learners the time to process and think through the maths problems for themselves. It may even be helpful to explore some of the worst case scenario situations, in a safe space, giving students an opportunity to recognise how they respond or feel about maths.
  • Make maths relevant for learners in the way it is taught. It may be helpful to connect and apply maths to real-life situations. 
  • Focus on the ‘why’ behind some of the problems.  Eddie Woo is a maths teacher and Youtuber who may be an excellent resource. You can find out more about his focus here. 

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An encouragement to parents, teachers, and learners  – it is possible to overcome math anxiety with the right support, structure, and tools in hand. It will always start with honesty, good communication and a willingness to grow into a new way of thinking beyond what you think is possible! We 100% support you and believe in you.