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Beating Math Anxiety

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

Having been a cognitive neuroscientist for a while now, I still read the occasional scholarly article.

Gosh, doesn't that sound boring!!!!

It can be dry reading, but it's worth the effort. That's because I can find gems for the faithfuls who like to read my blog posts, and books, and those lovely people who attend my seminars and workshops (book one now).

Tandem skydivers and the plane they just jumped out of
Like jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane!

I came across an article today, in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in which the authors described trying out a strategy to help people overcome high maths anxiety. Imagine feeling stressed every time you got maths homework, or had to calculate a tip, or had to prepare a profit & loss or BAS ... maybe you go out for dinner with friends, and everyone tries to calculate their share of the bill, and then a tip ...

You're on the spot, and incredibly embarrassed!

If you have had trouble with maths from early on, the chances are that you'll avoid any situations in which you need to do maths. If you had trouble at school, you might have avoided maths classes, maths tests, maths homework, and even maths study groups. You might even have ended up not finishing school, because you were scared of maths content and maths exams. You might have avoided going to university or doing the degree that you passionately wanted to do, because it contained maths or statistics.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists (yep, like me) have been coming up with ways to help people who get stressed in certain situations.

First of all, you're not alone.

Secondly, the fact that you're not alone, means you can find like-minded souls to become your study-buddies, and from there, you can try some of the tips you'll find here and in my book. You might even like to arrange a workshop (with your study-buddies), or if you run a school or other institution, you might like a seminar.

But, let's get back to that dry scholarly article, and break it down into it's bare bones (so it's useful to you, right now).

The authors' first strategy was "cognitive behaviour therapy". Now, that's a psychological therapy, delivered by psychologists and clinical psychologists. It works, but not everyone has access to it. Why not? Because there aren't enough psychologists to go around for all the people who need them. If you don't know what to do with your life, you can look into this as a career option (or vocation), but be warned - you'll need to get your head around maths!

The authors then suggested something we can all learn (phew), and that's a technique called "cognitive reappraisal emotion regulation".

I know, psychojargon ....

Before you turn away in what cognitive neuroscientists might call "attentional disengagement", let's get back to talking plain English!!!

So, cognitive reappraisal emotion regulation is where instead of you saying,

"This makes me feel awful; I get so knotted up inside that I can't think straight."

You think, speak and feel a little better, with words like,

"This can make me feel awful sometimes, but the energy I get with it can be powerful stuff. I'll just use that energy to get better at this!"

Think about actors, especially when they are working on stage. Actors often have anxiety, stammers, social phobia ... somehow they stand there in the wings, waiting for their turn to enter a scene, and they get over it. How? You guessed it, cognitive reappraisal emotion regulation.

So, how do you do it? Good question!

One answer, is by thinking about your reactions (those gut reactions) in a different way, and distancing yourself from what you fear. You're not avoiding it all together. Imagine you are at Point A, and the maths problem is at Point B. It's far away. Feel how far away it is. It's so far way that you don't worry about it. It can't touch you; it's just maths. If you tweak it, it won't hurt you. Go ahead, imagine poking it! It's just an object.

Another answer, which also involves this "distancing" thing, is to imagine you are talking about the math problem to a friend. Maybe you could imagine the friend is the one with the math problem! Day-dream about helping your friend!

When I was in Year 7, a friend would ring me at dinner time, to ask if I had done my maths homework yet. I'd say no, and go get my books. We'd talk about it over the phone, and work it out together. She was an awesome friend!

One of the things that can happen, when you practise distancing yourself from the maths problem, is that you can reframe your emotional response. So now, you have control over your thoughts, words, and emotions.

But how do you reframe your feelings?

Here's how. Let's think of it this way. Your body, when scared, has a "fight, flight, or freeze" reaction. It's great, because it helps you in an emergency. That same response is set off when you are feeling afraid of something, like maths.

The really quirky, useful thing about this bodily-reaction, is that you can use the energy that comes with it, to get to things faster! Way faster! That's because the thing that's pumping through your entire body, making you feel sick, is adrenaline! It's fantastic stuff. It's what the medical teams give a person when they need a kick-start. Well, when you're scared, your body naturally gets pumped full of this energy-driving stuff, and you can use it for all sorts of good things, including your maths problems.

Once upon a time, I went white-water rafting. I was a terrible swimmer, and was petrified. I thought I'd fall out of the dinghy, be washed away, have my head dashed on rocks, and drown. Petrified!!! As we were approaching the set-off point on our bus, I held my head near the window, because I thought I'd be sick. The exhaust fumes didn't make me feel any better! Part of our preparation was to form a buddy-alliance with someone in our dinghy. I met a guy, and we were buddies. Little did I know that he and a few others would throw me overboard later that day! They did it when it was safe, and they hauled me back in the boat, and I learned a valuable lesson on that trip.

The best kind of adrenaline is fear adrenaline!!!

It must be why there are so many people who do very risky things.... Anyway, you would think I'd have the same feeling when doing a tandem skydive years later. But, it turns out, that this was the single most peaceful experience of my life.

I had learned cognitive reappraisal without noticing it. You can too. A really good thing to do, when you feel calmer and serene about maths (because you will), is to describe how you did it to someone else. Always remember to help someone else, because it will be a win-win - you will feel better every time you talk about your cognitive reappraisal emotion regulation strategy, and your friend will too. You will make them feel normal, and that's a priceless gift!

Remember, my book, "Study Skills for Success", will teach you, pretty simply, how to use your brain efficiently to get information in, and to get information out. The sooner you start reading this book and using my tips, the sooner you’ll develop both the competence and confidence to succeed in your schooling and further education.

It's available as an e-book, and only from my website. Lucky you, it's in the Store tab, and hyperlinked right here. Please purchase it - for yourself, for the students you care about. And please, let me know what you think about it. Your feedback helps me to improve what I do too! Thanks!!


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