What Is Math Anxiety? A New Study Says That Racial & Gender Bias Around Math Ability Has Mental Health Consequences

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If memories of overwhelming anxiety during math class (still) haunt your dreams, there’s actually a good reason for that. A new study says that math anxiety is real, and it especially impacts women and people of color. Math anxiety may be a key reason why women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM fields. Combined with stereotype threat — or negative expectations of performance linked to gender and racial biases — math anxiety, or trauma, shuts a lot of people down, and it shuts them out of STEM. If you think you aren’t good at math because you used to freeze up during timed math quizzes, it turns out that it wasn’t you: It was the testing method that was, well, sort of messed up.

According to the study’s authors, stereotype threat happens when people feel “at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong … this usually refers to females being reminded of the stereotype that males are better at mathematics." Stereotype threat can also occur with regard to other marginalized groups. The authors of the study, which was published in Frontiers in Psychology, write that people don’t perform as well in math when exposed to stereotypes, such as the idea that white men are better at math than women and people of color are, an idea that doesn't have basis in fact.

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The mental health consequences of this stereotyping can be debilitating. Quartz reports that math trauma is a potentially debilitating form of anxiety that can result in a kind of mental freeze where you can't think clearly, and it can really mess with your confidence when it comes to numbers. Quartz reports that outdated notions of what it means to be good at math (like equating skill with speed) have harmed many students abilities in this area, and may limit career paths moving forward.

“Tying speed with computation debilitates learners,” writes Quartz. “People who struggle to complete a timed test of math facts often experience fear, which shuts down their working memory.” If your brain is temporarily unable to function the way you want it to because of anxiety, it can reinforce a false idea that you can’t do math.

The American Psychological Association (APA) states that “negative stereotypes raise inhibiting doubts and high-pressure anxieties in a test-takers mind … even passing reminders that someone belongs to one group or another, such as a group stereotyped as inferior in academics, can wreak havoc with test performance.”

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The pressure of a timed test combined with the pressure to not conform to an expectation about your race or gender, adds up to a ton of potential anxiety when it comes to test-taking and academic performance. And this is just the kind of anxiety that can cause a temporary, but total, mental shut down when it comes to taking math tests, according to Quartz.

If you find that you still feel a little queasy when it comes to numbers, know that there are ways to resolve math trauma. Quartz suggests that healing math trauma means reframing what it means to be good at math. The “drill and kill” method of teaching math, where you only have a brief window of time to solve complex problems, is outdated, according to Quartz, which means that speed and accuracy aren’t the benchmarks of what it means to be good at math anymore.

By recognizing that your past experiences may have hurt your confidence in math, and that you were subject to a flawed and often biased educational approach, you can start releasing some of that anxiety over time.