HealthAre you struggling with numbers due to math anxiety?

Are you struggling with numbers due to math anxiety?

Math anxiety is something that I have struggled with throughout my childhood and still struggle with as an adult. If you have never experienced math anxiety, consider yourself lucky. Many, like me, who experience math anxiety find using arithmetic in everyday life a challenge—even simple things like determining whether I have received the right amount of change, or how much of a discount I would get by using a coupon.

Right now we have more questions about math anxiety than we have answers. My struggles and confusion with math anxiety led to my involvement in a research study led by Dr. Keri Weed and Dr. Laura Swain at the University of South Carolina Aiken. The study investigates physiological processes associated with thinking about numbers and how anxiety specifically related to math may be associated with lower performance. This type of research is particularly important to me due to its tremendous potential to help children and teens like me who struggle with math anxiety.

Math Anxiety Starts at a Young Age

I remember having math anxiety as early as elementary school. I was always interested in science and literature but when it came to math, I was unfocused and uninterested. I had total confidence and made excellent grades in all other subjects, but when you put numbers and symbols in front of me, I panicked. My parents were aware of my feelings about math from as early as first grade. Although they attempted to help, their own struggles with math limited the amount of help they were able to provide; signing me up for tutoring was the best they could do. They accepted my below average math grades, as long as I did well in the rest of my classes.

The only math classes I took were mandatory. During these classes I’d sit all the way in the back, in an attempt to ensure that I’d never get called on to answer a question aloud. I tried my hardest to avoid math and the feelings of discomfort, stress, and embarrassment that came with it. But some math classes were unavoidable, and with those classes came tests and exams. So when those dreaded moments came, and that math test was placed in front on my face, my mind almost instantaneously went blank. Accompanied with my useless, blank mind, was a racing heart and sweaty palms. So I just tried my best to get through the test and turn it in, accompanied by feelings of shame. As I walked away, my mind was flooded with what-ifs. “What if I failed that test? I’ll fail the class. If I fail the class, I can’t keep my scholarship. If I can’t keep my scholarship, I can’t graduate. If I can’t graduate I can’t get a good job…” and so on. As you might imagine, these intrusive thoughts made me feel even worse.

Math Anxiety Carries in into Adulthood

My self-confidence and self-esteem were constantly being battered. Every time I needed a calculator to compute something that my friends were easily able to figure out in their head, I felt silly and unintelligent. My self-confidence took a beating when I knew I performed badly, especially since my parents, and society more generally, valued math success. The most successful and highest paying careers all involve some sort of applied mathematics. Forbes touts engineers, physicists, and mathematicians as the some of the most formidable careers.

Thankfully, my parents understood my struggles and provided encouragement and support. But all parents aren’t as understanding as mine, and others may not be able to overcome the blows to their self-esteem. I feel that I could have had a better grip on this math anxiety if I had a little extra help from my teachers in middle and high school. Yes, I knew they were available, but sometimes when you’re that age, it can be embarrassing to ask for extra help.

In all honesty, I chose to pursue psychology because of its few math requirements. I did not want to risk enduring an entire semester of any higher level math. However, even psychology requires proficiency in statistics, and statistics involves math. I am determined not to let my math anxiety hinder my ability to excel in my chosen field. Although interpreting statistics is challenging when you don’t understand any of it, I haven’t let my self-doubts or sweaty palms deter me from researching the causations of math anxiety.

Researching the Ins and Outs Of Anxiety

And from all of my personal struggles, I ended up getting involved with Weed and Swain’s research on math anxiety. The goal of the project is to explore how people react physiologically when working on math and thinking about numbers. Since anxiety is typically accompanied by sweaty palms and a racing heart, we attach electrodes to the palm of the hand and then instruct college students to work out math problems and other types of questions that involve thinking about numbers in their head. The sweaty palms accompanying math anxiety can be measured by an electrodermal response that relies on the skin’s ability to conduct electric current, similar to a battery. The current grows stronger when the emotional demands are greater. One of the questions that we want to answer is whether people who report being more anxious about math have a higher electrodermal response compared to people who report little anxiety.

We are also using a neuroimaging technique called functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) to explore the ‘blank mind’ condition some people with math anxiety have when they are faced with number computations. fNIRS is a technique that allows us to measure how much oxygen the blood in the prefrontal cortex of the brain uses as it processes numbers. The brain needs oxygen to function, so the amount of oxygen that is depleted can be used to infer how hard the brain is actually working. To measure the amount of oxygen, we wrap a headband around the person’s forehead that emits infrared light. It then detects the reflection of that light depending on the amount of oxygen in the blood. Comparing the amount of oxygen depleted in the prefrontal cortex of people who report math anxiety to those who report little anxiety will allow us to infer whether or not the mind is actually going blank.

Understanding the Complex Problem that is Math Anxiety

Our research won’t answer the question of how math anxiety originates in childhood, but it will provide insights into how the body and brain respond when faced with math challenges. Eventually we hope to apply this knowledge to children and teens as they are developing mathematical skills. Better understanding of the causes of anxiety and the physiological underpinnings will help in developing strategies to lower the anxiety and enhance math performance. Better grades could lead to countless benefits including higher graduation rates, scholarship eligibility, more varied career opportunities, and greater self-confidence.

The goal or our study is to find better ways to address math anxieties early on so that they don’t undermine self-confidence and limit career choices. As a first step, we will soon have answers that explain how students who report having anxiety about math differ from those who indicate they have less anxiety about math in terms of actual math performance. We also aim to provide more insight on the electrodermal response of those who report math anxiety (do they really have palms that sweat more?), along with the amount of oxygen in the prefrontal cortex of their brain.

Although we expect to find that self-perceptions of anxiety and physiological responses will be related to math performance, we have more work to do before we fully understand how much anxiety about math interferes with further development of math skills, and how much early misunderstandings about numbers may lead to greater anxiety in situations that require calculations. We aim to finish the study by the end of 2014. After analyzing all of our observations, we hope to show our audiences valuable data on the nature of math anxiety as well as provide tips on handling math anxiety.

Psychology Undergrad at University of South Carolina Aiken

Haley Boyd is a senior at University of South Carolina Aiken. After earning her BA in psychology, she plans to continue her education in a Masters in Social Work (MSW) program with a specialization in substance abuse and addictive behaviors. During her years at USC Aiken, Ms. Boyd has been an active member of Sigma Alpha Pi, National Society of Leadership and Success, the Neuroscience Club, and has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and at the local animal shelter. She has been the recipient of both the Hope and Life scholarships and has been on the Dean’s list for 3 consecutive years.


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