Fear of math is a real thing. I thought I was the only neurotic freak who struggled with fractions in third grade, avoided taking calculus in high school, and dropped out of physics for non-science majors in college. But it turns out an emotional reaction to all things numeric now has an official label: math anxiety.
Mark Ashcraft heads the psychology department at the University of Las Vegas and has made his name researching math anxiety. “We’ve even seen it in very young children, say first or second grade. But typically math anxiety starts to show up along the sixth grade, seventh grade level,” Ashcraft told me.
What starts as pre-test jitters festers into a full-blown belief that you just can’t do math. At all.
Ashcraft says this defeatist attitude affects all kinds of life decisions, like choosing a major because it requires no math. Or, in my case, never balancing my checkbook. There is also evidence that little girls learn math anxious attitudes from female teachers. Meanwhile, studies have shown that it’s the anxiety itself, not any innate disability, that prevents students from conquering math.
Anxiety hampers us from thinking—our brain just shuts down. This isn’t a new concept. As a society we are fascinated with finding ways of hacking the mind-body connection. It’s why yoga is mainstream and meditation is on the ascent. And why Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk,”Your body language shapes who you are,” has been viewed more than 17 million times.