Maths anxiety is real and affects many people. Ruth Hand from the Mathematics Resources Centre (MASH) explains what it is and how to overcome it.
Have you ever seen ‘maths’ on your timetable and felt your heart sink? Then you're a really normal student!
About one in three 15-24 year-olds feel anxious about maths (some estimates are higher), and this group includes people studying numerate degrees, so if you're feeling anxious about maths, there are others on your course feeling the same way.
What is maths anxiety?
Most people are anxious about something, and maths-anxious people are anxious about doing maths! One of the things that characterises maths anxiety specifically is that it is an emotion that blocks a person’s reasoning ability when confronted with a mathematical situation.
It can have physical symptoms e.g. a racing heart, irregular breathing, sweatiness, shakiness, and a hollow feeling in the stomach. It can prevent you from wanting to try, and make you feel guilty for not wanting to try. It's certainly a horrible condition to have.
Why is my brain doing this to me?!
Researchers have investigated maths anxiety using brain scans. This research provides evidence that maths anxiety reduces working memory. Since working memory is important for many maths tasks you can see how a downward spiral might start.
Maths anxiety also affects the ‘fight or flight’ region of the brain. When you are maths-anxious your brain sees maths as a threat and can react in the same way as a brain experiencing physical pain, i.e. it tells you to run away!
The good news is that researchers have shown that using emotional control techniques before you attempt to do maths can get your brain back on track and allow you to learn maths successfully.
Our colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University have produced a student resource with some techniques for dealing with maths anxiety.
What is it about maths that creates feelings of anxiety in so many people? That's a question researchers are still trying to answer.
Maths is presented at school with ‘right or wrong’ answers. It's likely that this makes people feel nervous that they will give one of the ‘wrong’ ones. This fear is often rooted in past humiliation.
Maths is also often thought of as something ‘clever’ people can do, and this can lead to variety of self-esteem problems. Those who think they can’t do maths because they are ‘not clever enough’ are put off from trying in the first place.
There are also students who see themselves as ‘good at maths’ and therefore feel anxious when they meet more difficult problems.
The first step is... to take one
One of the cruel things about maths anxiety is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maths learning often builds on previous maths learning and practice is an important part of the learning process.
Anxiety can be paralysing, and can prevent you from being able to make a start. In fact, maths anxiety can even prevent students from seeking help with maths.
The MASH team understand that many students are anxious. We work with maths-anxious students every day. Our drop-in is a safe place to come and seek support especially if you feel you've fallen behind in lectures.
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