Math Anxiety: A Clinical Analysis



A friend of mine recently mentioned, and it was the first time I had heard of it, a disease he called dyscalculia, meaning a specific dysfunction of the ability to calculate.  In the same conversation he also mentioned "math anxiety," a related syndrome, but this one I did in fact recognize, for it has been under discussion since about 1965, with many articles about it in places like Harper's Magazine.  I am not a regular reader of the medical journals, but so far as I know, math anxiety has not yet achieved any tested and approved diagnosis, let alone treatment.   During these thirty-five years of math anxiety we have had cures, preventives or palliatives for smallpox, earache and several forms of heart disease and cancer, but like neurosis, math anxiety has evidently resisted scientific analysis, though of course  neurosis has been analyzed in other ways.


I observe in passing that the science of psychoanalysis has collected many dollars from the innocent hoping to benefit from its mode of attack on neurosis, so that I suspect the day will come when, should math anxiety also become perceived as injurious to the well-being of the moneyed classes, it will also attract a crew of well-paid caregivers, especially if public funds become available.


I remember my own youth, in high school and college, when I suffered from what I now see must have been math anxiety during the period immediately before and during all math exams.  During the rest of my days, working in my father's store or watching movies, and especially at dinner, I didn't suffer those symptoms at all.  It was an intermittent disease. I believe it is related to stage-fright, something that also afflicted me at that time and since, though only when I was called on to speak in public.


Now math anxiety and stage-fright each, in my experience, manifest themselves unlike other diseases in three special ways:


1.  They appear only in test situations, and are not noticeable at other times.  In this they do not resemble diphtheria, for example, which may appear in any setting, at home or at work, during business hours as well as during vacations.


2.  Their symptoms are not externally visible or objectively testable, but must be noticed and announced by the victim himself.  In this they do not resemble leprosy, for example.


3.  Their symptoms are considerably lessened –  according to the patient,  since only the patient is competent to report such things -- if certain non-clinical precautions, to be described below, are taken before the test situation is encountered.


In view of the second of the qualities listed above, explaining anything detailed about math anxiety or stage fright can only be done with reference to one's own experience, since others cannot see it or sense it except as the victim tells about it.  Therefore I shall draw my examples and analyses from introspection alone.


To take one example, I was a member of the Detroit Central High School (Varsity) debating team in 1940-41.  We participated in six inter-school debates on the proposition, Resolved: that the powers of the federal government should be decreased. My stage fright was enormous, nearly debilitating, during Debate # 1 (against Northern High), but by the end of the school year (against Denby) I came out on the stage with no trembling at all.  Practice alone seems to have made the difference, since no therapist had been treating me in the meantime.


Another example concerns mathematics.  I was a pretty good calculus student in college, but I do remember nonetheless the fright attending every examination.  A few years later (a war intervening) I was actually teaching calculus, and my first year at that, while I was still a graduate student, again produced those same symptoms, though only before and during my classes.  (Never on Sunday.)


The disease here in this case was more complex than in the first example:  It was stage-fright complicated by math-anxiety!  Or so it seemed, since twenty years later I suffered no such thing in calculus  teaching, even when facing a brand-new audience in September of each  year.  But when, because of a last-minute defection of a colleague,  I was suddenly and unexpectedly called on to teach a course in statistics, the same old disease, that had seemed to be in remission, suddenly popped up again.  (I don't know beans about statistics.)  So maybe it wasn't stage-fright at all, only statistics-anxiety.  I know of no test by which to distinguish them in the present state of the science.


Thus it appears that math anxiety may be subject-specific, and my relative freedom from it as I grew older was not due to age -- I had aged quite a bit before suffering from statistics anxiety -- but to practice.   Competence and knowledge seem to be curative in some degree.


So we know this much:  It is not age-related, then, this syndrome of  "[subject]-anxiety".  Nor for that matter does it appear specifically related  to certain subjects,  such as math, statistics, or the otherwise terrifying  proposition that the powers of the federal government be decreased.  This  sample of subjects subject to the disease is admittedly too small to make  it certain that it is subject-indifferent, but I have yet another example which can extend the list, and at the same time permit me to complete the description of the disease, the etiology as it were if not yet a complete recommendation as to treatment. I will describe an experience of my own, of just three or four years ago.


When, in 1995, I retired as professor to become "professor emeritus" I decided to learn some economics.  I took three courses at the University of Rochester, seriatim; they were called microeconomics, macroeconomics, and international trade and payments, these being the very backbone of the undergraduate economics program here, apart from "Intro", which I skipped in the arrogant belief that I was at least that competent already.


Now, my doctoral exam (in math) had been in 1954, and forty-odd years later I was taking exams again, ordinary youngsters' student exams for grades and credit, and there by golly was my old friend in the belly, anxiety -- again! -- like the twinge of an old wound.  It was odd to recognize after all this time the stirrings of the fears of yesteryear.   Sitting there in the exam room feeling (as always) guiltily unprepared, I would look around at the other students and think, goodness, is this what I'd been doing to my students all these years?  In simple old calculus?


Here in economics I had no reason for guilt, after all; I had done all the exercises, and even paid attention to the professor's notes on my mistakes when the papers came back, something many of my classmates evidently had not done, since their papers often stayed piled up in the professor's homework-return box until at the end of the year the janitor threw them out.


Actually the micro course wasn't so hard and my breath came fairly easy for a while, but the macro the following semester was a tangled story with a confusing young  professor and a textbook that in its anxiety to avoid “mathematics" (except for the ubiquitous graphs) made everything quite obscure.  Yes, I could blame it on the book, or the professor, but I won't.  A bad workman blames his tools.  My trouble was economics anxiety, plain and simple.


After macro, finally, and after a peaceful summer during which I could think of other things, the pollen-laden winds of another September brought with them severe international trade fears.  My professor, Ron Jones, was not only a well-known authority in the field, but had been my friend for thirty years.  He was a man with whom I had often discussed economic policy-making of the highest order.  How learned I remembered having sounded in arguing fine points with him; and how I regretted it now!  I simply could not show him my ignorance of those rather simple -- to him -- things that he put on exams for the kiddies in  simple ignorance of their profundity, in innocent ignorance of their anxiety potential, while I was practically paralyzed.


If some snake-oil salesman had come around that fall with a cure for international trade anxiety -- some equivalent to FOIL, only for relative advantage rather than binomials  -- some equivalent to EVERY GOOD BOY DOES FINE, only for monetary policy rather than the treble clef -- I might well have succumbed to the lure of the rote route. Failing that, one could always plead illness on exam day; for the tolerant dispensations  of the late 20th Century would have excused me in most folks' eyes, maybe  even in Ron Jones's.


But the Puritan heritage drilled into me in a much earlier part of that same century had no solace to offer. It didn't care about me and my economics anxiety; it didn’t understand illness at all, only hellfire and damnation, responsibility and self-sacrifice.


I had to go through with it. I studied, I did the exercises, I attended the help sessions.  I even learned something about international trade (though I think I’ve forgotten it by now).  But still --- I was diseased!  My stomach hurt. I didn't deserve that, I thought, even as at the end of the term, apparently in consequence of my decision not to take a fourth economics course, the symptoms were dying down.


 This is what comes of being young again.  I don't recommend it.  Since that awful day of my last final examination I have never again tried to learn anything.  I have discovered the cure for economics anxiety, and believe that with an NSF grant and a few research assistants I can discover the cure for math anxiety as well.


Revised 2003