Tag Archives: math anxiety

Mental Math: The Struggle is Real

Alright fools, sit your butts down. Today’s blog post is an important one.

I’ll start this whole thing off with a confession. You’ve all heard me say that I can’t do math in my head, right? Well, that’s a lie. I am perfectly capable of doing math in my head.

I just can’t do it when others expect me to be able to do math in my head.

Elaboration: like a lot of people, I’ve always equated math ability with intelligence. I know that’s a narrow and inaccurate way to define intelligence, but for the longest time, math was my go-to smarts-o-meter. That’s probably because I used to be hella afraid of it and thus considered anyone who wasn’t hella afraid of it to be way smarter than I was.

But anyway.

I’ve long since redefined how I view intelligence. Namely, it’s very obvious to me now that people can easily be “intelligent” in a wide variety of things (think Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences). A dude who’s fantastic at painting but horrible with numbers, for example, can be just as intelligent as a dude who’s amazing with numbers but not so much with paint. And people who are not “book smart” (or “school smart” or whatever) can be ridiculously intelligent in other aspects of existence that just aren’t captured by that book smartness/school smartness.

I’m sure most if not all of my readers would agree with this.

However, if you’re someone who likes math and are around people who know you like math, they’re probably going to expect you to be good at mental calculations. That’s always been my experience, at least.

And that makes me panic like you wouldn’t believe.

Especially since going into the quantitative/statistics side of things, my ability to do math in my head—“on the fly”—has gotten worse. And I think that’s because if the people I’m around know I’m into stats, I suspect they automatically assume I’m some sort of human calculator. And if I can’t prove my amazing calculating abilities, then I’m too stupid to be studying something like stats. After all, who wants a statistician who can’t add 23 + 27 in their heads?

Here’s the thing. I can add 23 + 27 in my head. It’s super easy to do. But if you just ask me to do it, I will panic and not be able to because I’m too busy freaking out about being judged on if I’m doing the calculation quick enough or what would happen if I make an error.

That sounds really stupid and maybe a bit unclear. Let’s use pictures to clear it up a bit.

Here’s what I would suspect loosely happens in the head of a person without this “math on the fly” anxiety when they’re asked to add 146 + 279:


And here’s what happens to me and, I suspect, a good deal of others:


I’m not exaggerating. When someone poses a math question—even something simple like basic addition—I automatically lose focus on the numbers and start freaking out about how dumb they think I am if I don’t answer it right away.

Ridiculous? Yes.

Reality? Yes.

And I can’t be the only one. However, most of my friends (based on just watching them answer impromptu math questions) don’t experience this, so I just wanted to show you how it is for me.

So there you go.


I haven’t given you a proper rant yet this year, have I?

Well buckle up.

Recall this entry I posted awhile back about my relationship with math throughout my life. I’ve spent most of my college career trying to overcome my fear of failing at all things math (to reiterate an important point: I don’t (and never did) hate math, and I’m not afraid of math itself, I’m afraid of sucking at math). And I think I’ve done a pretty damn good job of it, all things considered. Hell, I’m technically a math major now anyway.

But I still get major, major anxiety when it comes to math tests. I get test anxiety in general, but my math test anxiety is and has always been through the roof. I try to overcome it and tell it to shut the hell up, but it’s really hard for me to do so.

So you can imagine my frustration at hearing my dad repeatedly tell me that I’m an “artsy” person, not a “science” person whenever I mention my anxieties regarding math.

Couple points here.

Point the First:
Um, what? Okay, let’s for a second go along with this idea that there’s a strict demarcation between the artsy and the sciency. Last time I checked, I teach stats. That’s pretty damn sciencey, bro.

Point the Second:
I’m no genius or anything, but I’m pretty sure that people don’t fit into two nice little categories based on whether they have a propensity for painting or a propensity for solving integrals. You’re an academic, dad. You should at least know that a lot of the people we tend to think of as really freaking smart have been both “artistic” in the stereotypical sense and “sciencey” in the stereotypical sense. Mutual exclusivity does not apply here.

Point the Third:
This is the least important one, but that really messed with my anxiety levels. When someone’s anxious about doing something, you don’t essentially tell them “yeah, you shouldn’t be doing that anyway. You’re not expected to be able to do it ‘cause you’re not supposed to do it in the first place.” I don’t expect a pep rally or anything, but I wouldn’t mind it if you kept quiet about your doubts regarding my math ability when I say “hey, I’m anxious about math.”


This was going to be longer, but I can feel my blood pressure rising and I still have homework to do. So I’m going to end this before this post spirals off into a black hole of seething anger and repression.

Why explaining the Binomial Theorem to a fellow student is a big deal (to me)

Today I explained the Binomial Theorem to another dude in my discrete math class.

“Who cares?” You’re probably saying.

Well, let me tell you a little story.

I used to be good at math. Like, when I was a kid. In elementary school I was one of three kids who were in “advanced math” (we sat in a broom closet and did math out of junior high textbooks. We also gave each other really dorky math nicknames, but I can’t remember mine).

I wasn’t bad through Junior High, either. The only difference was that I’d hit the “who gives a crap about school” phase of my life, so I didn’t really try very hard.

But then I took Algebra II. And I had the worst  teacher ever. He was the track coach, so he was really only teaching so he could stay the track coach. He’d stand in front of the class for about 10 minutes, write out a bunch of equations and graphs without explaining them (seriously), then go back to his desk and review track film for the rest of the period. We were to spend the rest of the time doing a bunch of questions from the book, and he would get visibly irritated if we came up to him to ask questions.

I’m not even kidding.

What’s worse is how stupid he made us all feel when we did ask questions. And algebra’s never been my strength anyway (geometry and calc FTW), so you can imagine the number of berating comments I got because I always had questions. And me being me, I associated the “you’re so stupid” feeling with math, and that quickly turned into “you can’t do math you idiot.”

I’ll spare you all the crappy details, but by about January that year I would literally break out in hives whenever I walked down the math wing of the high school. I managed to stick it out, though, and ended up with like a 69.97%, which turned out as a C minus on my report card. And if you know me, you know that’s HORRIBLE. Even in my “I don’t give a crap about school” phase I didn’t get C minuses in any of my other classes.

The “Claudia’s too dumb to do math” attitude lasted into college as I took Math 143 in fall 2006 (though I submit that class was just a horrible class in general) and had like 40 panic attacks over Math 160 (“Survey of Calculus,” kind of an abridged version of calc I with a lot less integration) in fall 2007. I didn’t hate math—I appreciated everything it gave us and the amazing applications—I just hated doing it. (Which is actually kind of funny, because I NEVER felt like that when I started taking statistics. But I see stats and math as very different topics. But that’s another topic for another blog, so moving on…)

Once I got far enough along in the field of stats, I obviously started doing things that involved a lot more advanced math than anything I’d ever dealt with before (e.g., calculating eigenvalues and eigenvectors in factor analysis). And I think at some point I realized that if I was ever going to get anywhere in stats, I might as well stop being an idiot, face my fear of not being good at math (yes, it’s a fear of not being good at math, not a fear of math), and take some freaking math classes

And so that’s my life right now.

Every once and awhile, especially if I see a problem that I have no idea how to solve, I still get this incredibly visceral feeling of fear and dread and despair and self-hatred over being too stupid to do anything of worth, but I try to fight it and stay calm (well, calm for me).

But yeah. I’m absolutely loving my math classes and I’m really excited to get to Math 451 and 452, the two “Mathematical Statistics” classes, because I’m anticipating some big “click” where the two subjects merge into some beautiful orgy of integrals and probability distributions (and when that happens, good luck seeing a blog about anything else).


I just thought I’d explain that a little bit and give you a reason why you’re seeing a lot of “Claudia spazzes about math” posts.

Math, you’re deriving me crazy!

How many times have I used that joke?

Okay people, I’ve got another school-related question for you. As you already know, I’ve got my three minors: statistics, philosophy, and writing. Statistics and philosophy are essential—they’re highly recommended by the grad school I want to go to. Writing, on the other hand, is an “optional” one that I’m doing just because. So I’m wondering whether or not I should stop pursuing it. I’m thinking this a) because if I go for it, I’m going to have to take eight classes per semester (AT LEAST 21 credits, cause one of those classes will be a lower-credit music class) and b) I want to take Latin or some other equally awesome random classes. If I have a writing minor, I won’t have time to take anything else.

And also—and I’m a little ashamed of this—I want to have a chance to be able to drop math this semester if I need to. I just don’t know if I’m ready for another math class that’s not set up in the super-easy fashion of Polya. I’ll have to read up a bit first (but dropping is a last resort!).

I hate these kinds of things. And yes, I know minors don’t matter at all, really, once I get into grad school. That’s one of the things pushing me towards cancelling writing.