By Anju Miura
“Get Psyched” explores the complicated process of human thoughts and behavior to help you understand who we really are. I write this series in the belief that understanding psychological theories will make your life easier, or at least, teach you why life could be so hard. After reading my stories, you’ll get psyched.
Ever since middle school, whenever I take a math exam, my heart beats faster, my palms start to sweat and I get butterflies in my stomach.
Perhaps this fear contributed to my choice to major in journalism. But even in the College of Communication, which is hardly related to anything math-like, math and statistics are still general requirements.
It’s impossible to avoid my greatest lifelong enemy: math.
What is math phobia
Having math phobia doesn’t necessarily mean you are bad at the subject itself.
Math anxiety doesn’t come from poor numerical skills. Instead, people may perform poorly in math because the subject makes them anxious.
Math anxiety decreases a cognitive resource called working memory, a kind of short-term memory which helps us organize information required to complete a task.
Our worries about being able to solve math problems reduces the available working memory needed to actually solve problems.
The reason behind math phobia
Our exposure to math during childhood largely influences our viewpoint.
When parents and teachers present math as challenging and unfamiliar, children can internalize this perspective and start to hesitate learning math rather than formulating creative ways to conceptualize it.
Also, when we repeatedly get low exam scores in the same subject, we internalize our incompetence and stop expecting to perform well.
American psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term learned helplessness, the sense of helplessness and resignation learned from perceiving no control over repeated bad events.
For example, a student who performs poorly on math exams and assignments could feel that she can’t do anything to improve her performance. She may also experience a sense of helplessness when facing math-related task in the future.
How can we overcome?
Over-learning is particularly essential if you suffer from test anxiety.
The busy life of a college student forces us to live under strict time management, but rather than studying our weakest subjects quickly and efficiently, we need to fully understand concepts and formulas, no matter how long that takes us. It is acceptable to spend more time on a subject than your peers to learn because every student has her own technique and learns at different speeds.
Distributed learning and practice testing might be two of the most important keys to improving your grades. Instead of studying five hours a day before the exam, we can build long-term memory and may be able to improve exam scores by reviewing notes for 30 minutes every day.
Relaxation techniques, such as short breathing exercises, can help improve test performances for students with academic anxiety. Physical exercise also helps to dissipate stress, relieve muscle tension and prevent anxiety from building.
Moreover, by writing down your worries, such as “I hate this subject,” or, “I don’t want to fail this class,” you can relieve your stress and have a chance to reevaluate a stressful experience.
The human brain is flexible. Believing in your potential to grow and improve can actually help you grow and improve. We are likely to devote extra time and effort to learning and improving academic achievement by telling ourselves that we can perform well.
Once you could get high scores on exams, you can develop high self-efficacy. That is a sense of competence, distinguished from self-esteem, which is one’s sense of self-worth.
If a person believes she is good at solving math problems and can perform well on exams, she has high self-efficacy in math because she believes in her competency of future performance. Repeated desired outcome can lead to increased confidence and belief in oneself.
The word “exam” often scares, distresses and makes students nervous. This anxiety isn’t exclusive to math, like it is for me, but applies to all other subjects.
We feel less competent and lose confidence by getting low exam scores. However, remember you can always overcome this pressure by believing in yourself. And like everything else, we get better at that the more we practice it.