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The Nature and Causes of Math Anxiety Help

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 26, 2011

The Nature and Causes of Math Anxiety

Many students suffer from what is called "math anxiety." Math anxiety is very real, and it can hinder your progress in learning mathematics. Some of the physical symptoms of math anxiety include:

  • nervousness;
  • pounding heart;
  • rapid breathing;
  • sweating;
  • nauseousness;
  • upset stomach; and
  • tenseness.

In addition to the physical symptoms, people may experience any or all of the following mental symptoms:

  • a feeling of panic or fear;
  • cloudy or fuzzy thinking;
  • lack of concentration;
  • a mental block in thinking; and
  • feelings of helplessness, guilt, shame, inferiority, or stupidity.

If you have any of these physical or mental symptoms when you are in a mathematics classroom, during a mathematics test, or when you are doing your mathematics homework, then you suffer some degree of math anxiety.

Naturally, a little fear or uneasiness accompanies all of us when we take exams, but if these symptoms are severe enough to keep you from doing your best, it is time to do something about your math anxiety.

In order to decrease your anxiety, it is helpful to determine why you have math anxiety. After all, no student, as far as we know, is born with math anxiety. Let's look at some possible causes of math anxiety, and while you are reading them, think about some reasons that might have caused you to develop math anxiety.

Reason 1: Poor Math Teachers

Throughout elementary school, middle school, and even in high school, you have had many mathematics teachers. Some were good, and some were not. Sometimes teachers are forced to teach math when they are not trained for it or when they dislike the subject themselves, or even when they do not under­ stand it. Naturally, in these situations, teachers cannot do a good job. Think about your teachers. Were they good or were they not?

Reason 2: Traumatic Experiences

Many students can recall an incident in their education involving mathematics where they had a traumatic experience. Were you ever called to the blackboard to do a math problem in front of the whole classroom and were unable to do it? Did your teacher belittle you for your inability in mathematics? Were you ever punished for not doing your mathematics homework?

Sometimes teachers, parents, or tutors can make you feel stupid when you ask questions. One such traumatic experience in a person's life can cause that person to fear or hate mathematics for the rest of his or her life.

One student recalled that when he was studying fractions in third grade, the teacher picked him up by his ankles and turned him upside down to illustrate the concept of inverting fractions!

Can you recall a traumatic event that happened to you that was related to mathematics?

Reason 3: Prolonged Absence From School

Students who miss a lot of school usually fall behind in mathematics. Many times, they fall so far behind they cannot catch up and end up failing the course. This is because mathematics is a cumulative subject. What you learn today you will use tomorrow. If you fail to learn a topic because you were absent, when the time comes to use the material to learn something new, you will be unable to do so. It's like trying to build a second storey on a building with a weak or inadequate first storey. It cannot be done. For example, if you look at long division, it involves multiplication and subtraction. So if you can't multiply or subtract, you will not be able to do long division. All mathematics is like this!

Think about a time when you were absent from school. Were you lost in math class when you came back?

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