What is math anxiety?

It’s a vicious cycle. When faced with a number problem you are gripped by anxiety or panic. Clearly these feelings are no good so you go out of your way to avoid number problems as much as possible. This leads to your becoming less and less “good at math” and the feelings of anxiety increase. Round and round you go until your math anxiety has become a fact of life for you.

Over time math anxiety can build up until those who suffer from it will do anything to avoid handling numbers.
Over time math anxiety can build up until those who suffer from it will do anything to avoid handling numbers.

Research is currently delving into possible causes of and intervention for math anxiety. One article from youcubed at Stanford University reports that timed tests may be responsible for math anxiety in some cases. Other research at the University of Chicago conducted by psychologist Sian Beilock found that math-anxious parents can pass on this anxiety to their children.

A first-person account from a New York Times reporter confirmed this, and mentioned as well the enormous effect teachers can have on a student’s math anxiety. Still other factors such as stereotype threat can severely and adversely affect students’ performance on math exams. And of course math learning disabilities such as dyscalculia can result in a child feeling intense anxiety when asked to deal with numbers.

What possibilities exist for breaking out of the cycle of anxiety-avoidance-poor performance? An experiment at Stanford University found that one-on-one tutoring alleviated math anxiety in students by using techniques based on exposure therapy. Students faced their fears of math in a supportive environment and gradually those fears lessened. Breathing techniques for older students at university have also been found to be effective. In the case of a learning disability then early intervention can be key in lessening anxiety caused by numbers.

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