Psychology

Tips to Overcome Math Anxiety



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The first tip to overcoming math anxiety is to realise that we are not born with math anxiety, but that it has built up through time. In other words, there are ways to overcoming math anxiety and succeed in passing Mathematics. Before we look into other tips to overcoming math anxiety, we must understand how the anxiety was birthed and built up over the years.

As with other anxieties, math anxiety comes about because we worry about negative outcomes, to the extent that it births forth fear, usually of failing. This fear usually accompanies low self-esteem and prevents us from thinking positively about ourselves, and hence about our activities. Anxiety in the learning of Mathematics is above the learning of other subjects because next to the learning of languages, Mathematics is another subject that is usually a compulsory subject.

On top of understanding the language it is taught in, we also have to grapple with the language of Mathematics. Being more abstract with symbols and coding than the more commonly used language it is learnt in, this creates a myth that the Mathematics language is difficult to master. We may speak the language we are learning Mathematics in, but we may not use the Mathematics language as regularly. Thus Mathematics seems a more difficult subject to learn.

Whether math anxiety is inate or nurtured, the good news is that, like other anxieties, it can be rid of. These are tips we can count on to help us overcome math anxiety and lead us to success in learning Mathematics. 

Tip number 1:  Get over past failures.

There must come a point when we say we are fed up of failing Mathematics all the time, and tell ourselves that we will not fail anymore. This determination is the moving force towards getting rid of math anxiety. No doubt, we will still have math anxiety down the road, but it will diminish with time, and we will still fail the subject. Nevertheless, the anxiety will not be as suffocating as before we determined to overcome it.

Tip number 2:  Resolve to set aside our fears and start over.

Nothing works with just the thought of being determined to pass Mathematics. We have to learn to set aside the fears that have gripped us first in subtle ways, and then become our torturers. We must tell ourselves that we do not find starting over again a setback. In fact, because the learning of new Mathematics concepts is layered on previous knowledge, the ones who finally pass Mathematics well when they once failed badly are those who started over from scratch.

Tip number 3:  Identify the aspects of Mathematics learning that are getting us poor results.

We are now ready to start from scratch. Starting from scratch does not necessarily mean going through the pages of all our kindergarten Mathematics books again. It simply means going over the topics from as low a level as we need to identify the areas we have not mastered, and learn that again, this time making sure we learn the right thing and learn well. As we are already older than when we first learnt Mathematics, we probably will not need more than a month to complete a year's syllabus at a lower level.

What we do need to know is that if we have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, we have to be realistic and accept that we will not be able to progress as fast as we would like to. That, however, does not mean we cannot learn or learn well. We would just need to know how best we learn and use that route to master what we have to.

We could learn on our own through reading. If we are at such a base level to be able to distinguish if we are learning correctly, it is wise to get a tutor or a helper who can our areas of confusion, and guide us through them into understanding and mastery of those areas.

Time number 4:  Time management.

One aspect of anxiety is probably that of time management. We would probably wonder how we can cope with having to deal with past topics and catch up with the present load. If we have an experienced teacher or tutor who can guide us through patiently, we will probably be able to progress faster. What we want to do is to dig out all the dirt in our learning and get rid of them, then learn well so that we can reach the standard that we have to achieve. This can be done by identifying related topics that we have to know before we can tackle the topic that we have to do so at the moment. When we have worked through those and understand them throroughly, we will find it so easy to layer on the topic that we need to learn and master it far quicker than ever imagined.

Tip number 5:  How do we eat an elephant? It is a bite at a time.

Math anxiety is like an elephant that we have to chew through. It is tough, but not impossible to overcome. By working through topics at a lower level, and working up to where we have to presently master, we will probably feel as if we are indeed chewing up an elephant a bite at a time. It is tough meat, but as we work through a bite at a time, we become stronger and we will be able to consume more within a minute than when we first started.

When we gain more and more knowledge in the basics of Mathematics, we will likely feel that we are indeed getting less anxious over Mathematics than when we first started off.

Tip number 6:  Recognise that some anxiety is good, if we do not let it freeze our brain.

The Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. There are two kinds of anxiety. One freezes our mind and immobilizes our capabilities to do anything. The other kind of anxiety is like ignition that pushes the rocket upward and propels us towards achieving our goals. We can either let anxiety kill us, or we can decide to kill it once and for all.

Tip number 7:  Mask your anxiety.

My first failure in Mathematics happened in Secondary Three. It was the first time I was doing the Additional Mathematics syllabus. I scored a miserable 5% in the first test. I was demoralised. Nobody except a sister of mine would ever score that low. To top it all, my substitute teacher told the whole class that she would present her head on a golden platter if I ever got to pass it. It did not sound silly then, to be able to walk around headless, and to be able to present your bloodied head on a platter when you cannot see where you are heading.

My anxiety of causing my mother disappointment with my low result soon turned into anger towards that substitute teacher. I resolved to pass the subject, and pass it well. My motivation was to make her eat her words. I, as well as the substitute teacher, was fortunate to have a more permanent teacher the next term, who took away my anxiety, and helped me and the class pick up the pieces.

Tip number 8:  Speak to someone.

Sometimes, a good teacher or tutor who can turn you in the right direction to mastering math anxiety suffices. At other time, the anxiety has become so chronic that we may need professional help in managing our emotions. A counselor or a psychologist may be the best person to help us out. They are available through our school. A counselor or psychologist is a trained listener. Often, math anxiety is not linked to just being able to master the subject. Other personal qualities such as relationships with our family, our expectation of ourselves, and our expectation of what others expect of us come into play. Often, it is the expectations, real or otherwise, that escalates the feeling of anxiety, not that we are not able to do better in Mathematics.

Math anxiety is not terminal like some illnesses. It can be diminished, if not extinguished forever. Face your fear of Mathematics and of what others and you expect of yourself, and resolve to start identifying the areas that you would need to pick up from. You will find that soon, you will lose your anxiety over Mathematics. Not only that, you will also gain more confidence to overcome other problems in your life.

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More about this author: Lokemun Magar

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