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Math Anxiety:
A Self-fulfilling Prophesy

Math anxiety is doubly painful. It's no fun, and unless you learn to overcome math anxiety, it is nearly impossible to do math.

For over twenty years, I've been a math tutor for students who suffer from math phobias, and I've read some of the scientific literature on it. Here's how I think about it.

We have a limited amount of brain power.

We can only hold 5 to 9 individual items in our brain at the same time. Let's say we are doing an addition problem like:


Let's see how may memory registers we are using. The first step would be to add "9+7." We need to remember the following:

  1. The "9"
  2. The "7"
  3. The sum "16"
  4. Write the '6,' below the line
  5. Carry the '1'

People have no problem remembering 5 thing at once. So far, there is no problem.

A confident person will "dump" the first two registers once they realize that the sum is "16," leaving their mind free to take on the next step of the problem.

But what if you aren't confident?

You won't clean out the memory as quickly, plus you will be busying your mind with other thoughts, like:

  1. Wait, is "9 + 7" really 16?
  2. 10 + 7 is 17, so it's not 17.
  3. Maybe it's 15.
  4. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16
  5. Oh my god, I'm counting on my fingers... How can I be so stupid?
  6. I bet I mess up again.
  7. No wonder my teacher hates me.
  8. My parents are going to kill me if I flunk again.

Remember the human brain can only hold five to nine individual items in memory at the same time. No wonder, the child with math anxiety struggles to get the right answer. They can't ever remember what they are trying to do!

Our memory is overloaded if we are anxious while doing math, but wait... it gets worse.

Sitting above our memory is what brain scientists call "executive function" which plans and then executes on our plans.

Unless a child has drilled a particular type of problem until they can do it in their sleep, they will need their executive function in order to do math.

Guess what?

The executive function is easily overloaded when resources are being devoted to memory.

Here is a brilliant experiment that showed how overloading memory can undermine executive function. It is easily modified as a science fair project.

So when we are anxious, our ability to do math gets hit twice. First, we can't remember numbers well; second, we lose our ability to plan and implement our plans.

No wonder Math phobias are such a severe problem for so many learners!

So how can we resolve math anxiety?

About sixty percent of my tutoring practice is students with math anxiety.

I have found that to really help, first address the anxiety, and then address the math.

Once the anxiety is resolved, the math becomes easy.

Learn to Overcome Math Anxiety

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