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If that sounds familiar, you might suffer from math anxiety.

If that sounds familiar, you might suffer from math anxiety.

To diagnose math anxiety, researchers administer a questionnaire. It asks things like: “How anxious would you feel about being given a set of division problems to solve on paper?” Some people will rate their reactions as being very panicky. Others have no stress — even if they know they aren’t numerical wizards. So how anxious someone feels tends to fall along a spectrum.

Those who score high on these surveys about stress over making numerical calculations will be labeled math anxious. The exact share who get this diagnosis, however, will vary, depending on where researchers choose to draw the line at what counts as high.

In general, people who panic over their math skills tend to do worse in math classes than do people who don’t mind numbers. But that’s not always true. “Just because you’re math anxious, that doesn’t always mean you’re bad at math,” notes Rose Vukovic. She’s an educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Understanding the issue can be a kind of chicken-and-egg problem, however. Does math anxiety cause low performance, or do skill problems trigger the stress? The two probably feed on each other, Vukovic says. Indeed, she argues, if low math knowledge were the only issue, building up those skills should erase the problem. Instead, research shows, simply dealing with the anxiety can improve math performance. That suggests that anxiety alone can sabotage math performance, regardless of someone’s skills.

As if theft of working memory isn’t bad enough, math anxiety also can hurt, literally. Ian Lyons is a psychologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Sian Beilock is a psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. Four years ago, when Lyons was Beilock’s student at the University of Chicago, the two conducted a study that looked at people’s brains when they thought about doing a math problem.

Many issues can trigger anxiety. It might be the anticipation of moving to a new city, of confronting some bully or of remembering your lines on stage during the performance of a play in front of an auditorium full of strangers. But even among academic subjects, researchers note, when it comes to anxiety, math seems special.

One difference may be mindset. Many people believe mathematical abilities are fixed. You’re either a “math person” or you aren’t. People who think this way take difficulty in math as a sign that they are just not cut out for it. Closely related to this “fixed mindset” is the genius myth. That belief holds that someone must be extremely gifted to do well at math. Together, these attitudes make people think that if math makes them struggle, it must be because they’re just not a math person. So they might as well give up.

One way to think about it is to compare math to music or sports. You don’t expect to sit down at a piano and immediately be able to play a Beethoven sonata. Similarly, no one would expect to make a three-point shot in basketball the first time they stepped onto a court. Sure, some people learn these things more easily than others. Still, with practice, anyone can keep getting better at piano or basketball. And even if you never become a famous musician or athlete, you can still enjoy playing music and sports throughout life. This holds true for math, as well.

The main thing seems to be to separate that stress from your thoughts about math. Ashcraft at the University of Nevada recommends compartmentalizing it. “I try to encourage people to think about setting the anxiety aside,” he says. “Engage in the worry later.”

Researchers did an experiment to see if separating them helped students with math anxiety. They split the students into two groups. One group did expressive writing about their math anxiety for seven minutes. They would write down their thoughts and feelings related to the looming test. The other group just sat quietly. Then each student took the math test. Those with high math anxiety scored significantly better on the test if they had been in the expressive writing group than if they had just sat quietly.

“This is a free app that allows kids and parents to work through math in a structured and fun way,” says Beilock. She was one of the researchers who studied the effect of this app on a diverse group of first graders.

The idea of this app is to get parents and kids talking about math outside of homework time. Instead of focusing on problems that have a right or wrong answer, families can talk about math in a lower-pressure fashion. For example, one prompt goes like this:

Youngsters whose families used the app had bigger gains in math achievement over the course of a school year than did the kids whose families didn’t. This was especially true, the researchers found, for kids whose parents themselves were stressed by math. (The study was funded by the foundation that created the app.)

One common problem with math anxiety is that affected students take fewer math courses and avoid majors and careers that use math. But that’s not true for everyone. Virginie Charette changed schools in the middle of ninth grade. And the first math test she took at the new school didn’t go well. She just bombed. “It wiped out every thought I had that I was good at math,” she recalls. Her confidence in math plummeted. For a while she even hated the subject.

Later, in college, she became friends with a math major. He started sharing math puzzles with her. And they proved fun. In fact, they actually kindled “a very emotional attachment,” she says. What’s more, she soon realized: “I had the calling.”

She is now a mathematician at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada. As someone who has dealt with her own math anxiety, she proves that it’s never too late to make friends with math.

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