Math and Feeling: Do Numbers and Equations Make You Uneasy?

To a preponderance of Macalester students:

k = 1nk2=n (n + 1) (2n + 1)6

How do you feel right now? Uncomfortable? Tense? Anxious? Disgusted? Disoriented?
…afraid?

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, trying to calm doubts regarding the safety of bank accounts during the Great Depression. But his words ring true for what I believe troubles a great number of Macalester students: a fear of math. In my personal experience talking with students, the mere mention of anything math-related causes many of them to retreat from the conversation. Some are even loathe to hear about these things called numbers.

I believe such responses are conditioned, existing purely in the psychological domain. Many of us have struggled with math in the past, finding the material too abstract or the calculations too difficult. The scars of low test scores quickly became engraved in mind. And from them, an amorphous, expansive fear of math emerged, meeting every insinuation of the topic with immediate avoidance.

However powerful though, aversion as a result of repeated punishment is a common behavioral response, one that might be best articulated as “I don’t want to be hurt again.” It’s a phobic arousal layered as a product of personal history, bounded in oneself more by emotion than thought. A fear of math may have materialized from previous encounters with the subject, but in all likelihood such problems have long since past. Only a stress response to math remains.

So given that internalized alarm, why would you want to return to math? Let’s forget for a moment the higher job prospects and career earnings that come with studying math. In high school, you probably learned about algebra and geometry before coming across calculus at the top of the totem pole. But it would be wrong to consider calculus the be-all, end-all of math as a discipline. Within math there’s also linear algebra, discrete math and probability. And there are also fields related to math, like statistics and computer science. Poor experiences in high school math do not necessarily predict poor experiences in different quantitative subjects. You might even discover an affinity for them.

That is, of course, if you first resolve your fear of math. And here is where I draw from my own path back to math, for I too was once perturbed by the mere thought of the subject. During my first year, I even scoffed upon hearing that a friend of mine was taking linear algebra. Yet, during that period I had started studying statistics. By the time I reached my junior year, I was interested in embracing statistics as a major, but was faced with a daunting prospect: in order to further my knowledge of statistics, I needed a background in math.

So I took the plunge, but not without trepidation along the way. I’ll always remember the sinking feeling in my head during my first multivariable calculus exam, and the rush of jittery anxiety I felt during my first discrete math exam. Disappointing test scores initially reinforced my apprehension over math. But, with time and rigorous practice, the dread surrounding mathematical notation and problem-solving began to fade. I learned from my mistakes, whether they were a result of interrupting emotion or cognitive error. And now, I mainly concern myself with the latter.

Moreover, coming back to math was my choice, and it is yours too. You must take it upon yourself to invest in math again, first by severing the connection between math and feeling. It will take faith, diligence, inner resolve and, most importantly, patience. For the body cannot quickly unlearn prejudice woven deep within. But once you get started, professors and preceptors will be open to assisting you as needed. Many of them helped me find my way, and I’m certain they would be more than happy to help you, too. It might even help to address your exposure to the equation from the opening of this article by recognizing its meaning. It’s simply the formula for calculating the sum of squared integers in a given range.

That being said, you don’t need to be a math genius to do math. After I switched my major to applied math and stats, I was struck by how differently strangers reacted when I enlightened them as to my studies. I was treated as some sort of savant, far removed from the ordinary person I was implied to be before. Well, as welcome an experience as my new major has been, I’m still the same person at heart. I’m just no longer afraid of math, and that has opened up new avenues through which to choose my career.

Furthermore, just as your reaction to math can change, so can your skills in the subject. The greatest mistake any student can make is viewing intelligence as static, unyielding to effort and resistant to any form of intervention. I’ve been there before with respect to math. But improving in math takes a similar approach to easing anxiety over numbers and their notation. Hard work cures all. And once you gain in math, you’ll build confidence, and any worries over math will further recede.

Have the courage to try math again. Course signups are just around the corner. You may think that it’s too late to seriously consider studying math. But I switched majors halfway through the first semester of my junior year, and I’ll be pursuing a Ph.D. in biostatistics at the University of Minnesota come fall. So when you’re figuring out your course schedule for next semester, ponder taking a math class. Maybe one or a few, maybe in theoretical or applied math. And, who knows. It just might change your life.