8 Ways to Beat Your Math Anxiety
If you have math anxiety, you’re not alone. Learn how to conquer it.
Let’s face it: Math gives us a lot of feelings … and most of them are not the warm and fuzzy kind.
Most estimates put the number of people who suffer from math anxiety at about one out of every five adults. But we’re here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. Dr. Nicola Petty runs a New Zealand-based company called Creative Maths that focuses on helping students learn to love math—yes, even you.
“There’s been this culture in our countries that made disliking math, particularly for girls, seen as socially OK,” she says. “We tend to have a fixed mindset regarding math: We either have a math brain or we haven’t a math brain. And it’s just not true. There’s no science to support it.”
Since math—particularly conversions—is an integral part of nursing school, we talked to Petty and asked students on social media about real-life tips and tricks to overcoming math anxiety. Here are eight ways to counter your fears.
1. Tell Your Math Story
This may sound a little woo-woo, but Petty believes this first step is perhaps the most important in getting over the trauma of our mathematical journeys.
Were you publicly humiliated when you got the wrong answer on that word problem? Did your parents drill you with flashcards and a kitchen timer? It’s important to know where this anxiety came from. Petty says she’s cried through many of these stories from students.
But identifying why you think you’re not a math person is the first step to becoming one. “It’s not your fault,” Petty says. “I like to say, ‘You were probably taught in a way that didn’t suit you,’ which takes the pressure off the teachers and takes the pressure off the student. The biggest message is: It’s not your fault.”
2. Find the Right Study Resources
Nursing students have shared that they’re particularly fearful of dosage calculations—after all, a lot is riding on a nurse’s ability to accurately administer medications to patients. But Julie Festa, a 30-year-old nursing student at St. Vincent’s College in Fairfield, Connecticut, who has suffered from lifelong math anxiety, says these calculations don’t have to be scary, as long as you find the right study materials.
“I learned to cope with anxiety by being really proactive about it,” she says. “I swear by this calculation dosage book. It gets me 90+ on all my math exams! I recommend going through the entire book’s practice questions during breaks between semesters, if possible.”
But Don’t Overdo It
Fellow nursing student Justine Gonz-Alar, who’s pursuing a BSN degree at Chamberlain University, agrees that study resources are essential, but warns that too many just end up working against you.
“Look for resources that help you understand topics better or break down the topic enough for you to understand,” she says, adding that there are many free resources available online. “It can do more harm than good, though, if you have too many in front of you, because you can and will become overwhelmed!”
Petty says that to really know your math, practice is necessary, though you should focus on a variety of problems rather than speed.
Petty, who has worked extensively with older students, and nursing students in particular, says it’s important to know that while schools ask you to learn these calculations, there are checks and balances in place—plus, computers!—when you’re actually on the job.
“Don’t feel fearful that you’re going to kill somebody because you don’t have good math skills,” she says. “What you do need to make sure is that you have a good idea of magnitude in terms of dosage,” as in readily knowing the difference between a microgram and a milligram.
3. Keep Practicing (and Practicing and Practicing)
The old school way of learning math—particularly basics like those dreaded multiplication tables—was rote memorization. But research has found that blindly memorizing facts and timing your speed can lead to unnecessary stress; your math fluency is more than just how fast you can recall information.
Petty says that to really know your stuff, practice is necessary, though you should focus on variety rather than speed. Choose different kinds of problems to work through, and don’t just read through your notes from class, which she says can give you the illusion of competence without actually knowing the material.
Nursing student Marisa Hetland lives by this model to overcome her math anxiety. “Practice, practice, practice!” she says. “There is no way to overcome that fear without doing a ton of practice problems to boost your confidence.”
4. Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late
Unlike other subjects, such as biology or history, math is cumulative, which means you build knowledge like you would building a brick house, from the foundation up. If insecurity keeps you from speaking up when you don’t understand those foundational lessons, you’re not going to be able to move on to more advanced concepts.
“Don’t wait until you’re so far behind that you’re freaking out,” Petty says. “If you feel like you’re losing your place in class, get help right away. It’s probably indicative of some underlying gaps that will need filling up.”
Petty also makes this point: If something—a family tragedy or health issue, for example—caused you to miss a lot of school at some point in the past, you can’t beat yourself up for not understanding what may have been covered in those lost days/weeks/months.
Just take the time to fill in those gaps and remember that it’s not your fault.
5. Have a Relaxation Strategy
Are you a talented baker? A chess wiz? Petty says identifying something that you’re consistently successful at can help you overcome the feelings of inadequacy that some students experience while learning (or re-learning) math.
“When you start to feel threatened, it helps to have a happy place to go back to, to put yourself back in a place of success,” she says.
6. Don’t Be Afraid of Your Mistakes
“The difference between the people who can do math and the people who can’t is what they do when they make a mistake,” says Petty. More often than not, she sees students throw up their hands—after all, “someone who doesn’t feel confident feels like they have to give up. But that won’t teach you anything.”
Petty’s approach is to analyze her own mistakes with curiosity, asking “Where’d I go wrong?” Once you understand what led to the mistake, you’re unlikely to make it again.
7. Ask for Help When You Need It
Gonz-Alar recognizes that it can be awkward reaching out to classmates for help, particularly in online courses, but your cohort can be one of the best resources when it comes to school success—and not just in mathematics.
“Think about it this way: You can help support each other by asking questions, sharing what and how you all are doing, she says. “You can remind each other when homework is due and share resources. Plus, you never know … you might even find a lifelong friend!”
Tutors also can be an excellent option for help. In elementary through high school, Festa says, tutors helped her get past her math anxiety.
Don’t feel like you must learn everything the first time around. There’s data to support that having heard something before makes it easier when you sit down to revisit it and learn later, Petty says.
Though she’s found a system that works for her in the nursing program, Festa points out that her school—like most—has many resources for students who need a little extra help, from peer tutors and a tutoring center to instructors who encourage students to swing by during open office hours.
Professors Are There to Help
And that previous point is one not to be taken lightly: If you are having a hard time with the course material, or need longer to work on an assignment, talk to your professor.
“Asking for help is not a weakness!” says Gonz-Alar. “I know it’s hard to swallow your pride sometimes, but it’s never wrong to seek help. This doesn’t mean asking the professor for the answer but asking him/her if they have recommended resources that they know might help, or maybe even if they can show you how to do something. They’re there to support you in your success.”
8. Know When to Take a Break
Sometimes the key to successful studying is knowing when to walk away—at least momentarily.
“When you start feeling upset, take a break, go for a walk,” Petty says. “When you start that spiral of ‘I can’t do this,’ it fills your brain up with bad stuff and you get frozen. The very part of the brain we need to process the mathematics is the part that gets frozen by our feelings.” If a professor is teaching material that feels over your head, Petty recommends letting it sail right past—exposing your mind to it now, without worrying about grasping the details and falling into the fear-of-failure trap.
Adult Students Can Have an Edge
Don’t feel like you must learn everything the first time around. There’s data to support that having heard something before makes it easier when you sit down to revisit it and learn later, Petty says. In fact, she believes adults make the best students—despite that old adage about old dogs and new tricks—because they’re intentional about their learning.
Ultimately, try to remember how many others feel just as you do about math. As Gonz-Alar says, “Remember, it’s normal to feel anxious and overwhelmed at first, especially if it is a class that you’ve never had before. Take a breath!”