All You Need to Know About Math Anxiety
Here is how one Redditor described how they always felt about math: “Any time there is a math quiz or test, even homework, I’ll have panic attacks, freak out and end up failing/doing poorly. The reasoning is because I’m paranoid that I’ll forget or still don’t know, which causes me to question everything which causes me to fail.”
Many people suffer from math anxiety — which is experienced as a nearly paralyzing fear of performing mathematic calculations, usually in situations of high pressure. And it doesn’t necessarily correspond to being bad at math — nevertheless, standardized testing and examination systems can induce a fear of math due to its cultural association with intelligence.
Math anxiety is common enough to warrant reams of research, but is not classified as a disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). That may be because math anxiety could be a pedagogical failure, and may even have gendered roots. Still, research has found some correlation between math anxiety and general anxiety.
Some studies have found a neurodevelopmental basis for it; others find a genetic link. But overwhelming evidence points toward environmental and systemic factors, such as stereotypes about women being bad at math, for instance. And sometimes, math anxiety itself can perpetuate math anxiety. For instance, parents or teachers with math anxiety could instill a fear of math in children around them too — leading to a cycle of it across generations.
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It’s also heavily mediated by gender, and this link is one of the most studied ones. Girls and women are more likely to have math anxiety. In elementary schools, math anxiety was a negative predictor of math performance for girls alone, according to one study. But on the other hand, another study shows that although anxiety is higher in elementary school girls, the detrimental effects in terms of performance are worse in boys with math anxiety.
There are also cultural factors at play here. One study traces patterns of math anxiety by country, and found that children in countries like Korea and Japan had higher math anxiety than those in other countries; pointing to a cultural factor that places higher pressure on children’s academic performance. Statistics find that East Asian countries are overall better at math than Western countries — which could in turn have a bearing on the cultural significance attached to scoring well in math.
But in terms of how it impacts people, the higher prevalence of math anxiety among women could contribute to the gender gap in STEM. The cultural association between math and masculinity is one that “bad science” has been complicit in as well; previously, researchers attempted to prove that girls who displayed an “unusual” interest in mathematics were less feminine, or were otherwise an anomaly.
There’s clearly generations of conditioning and cultural stereotyping that’s been inherited, with damaging outcomes for people who suffer from it. Given how mathematics is almost integral to most STEM fields, the anxiety being disproportionately borne by girls and women points to a systemic failure that remains to be substantively addressed.