3 Steps for dealing with calculation anxiety

As we celebrated World Mental Health Day yesterday, I want to talk about something that doesn’t get mentioned a lot with A Level students – calculation anxiety (or ‘math’ anxiety).

I’ve written a lot about supporting students with calculations, but today I want to focus more on mindset and less on the practicalities. If you want to know more about revision/study strategies to boost your confidence with calculations, you can read my previous post here. Meanwhile, here’s a few short tips and exercises to help you reframe and reduce the impact that anxiety has on your ability to handle calculations in chemistry – and any other subject.

Step 1: Acknowledge your anxiety

The first step to managing anxiety is to acknowledge that it exists. People experience anxiety in many different ways, but the main thing that separates it from ‘normal stress’ are that the stress or physical sensations we experience are disproportionate to the actual threat we’re encountering.

Before you think about why you’re anxious (see below), try to identify how you’re anxious. Do you have physical sensations – if so, what are they and where are they in your body? For me (I’m a big anxiety sufferer) I feel it in my stomach the most. Others might notice it in their skin, or they might notice effects on thoughts and behaviour – being unable to focus or getting unreasonably irritable or emotional. Anxiety symptoms are really unlikely to go away if you try to ignore them or fight them – instead, try to just label them, describe them and get to know them a little better so you can work with them and not make things worse every time they happen.

Step 2: Identify catastrophic thinking

Catastrophic thinking happens when we overestimate how dangerous or threatening a situation is. For a calculation in a test or exam, it could be that we see a six mark question with lots of written information and equations and we immediately decide that we won’t be able to get any of the marks. Our thoughts might go even further – because we can’t do this question, we can’t do any of them, we’re going to fail our A Levels, we won’t get into university, our parents will be disappointed, we’ll never get a job…

It looks a bit ridiculous when you write it down, doesn’t it?

You’re probably thinking that you don’t think like that – but if you’re trying to ignore the causes of your anxiety then a lot of this thinking may have become unconscious. So, do what I did – write it down. Don’t do it in the middle of a test, obviously – do it at a time when you’re not stressed and try to get to the bottom of what your particular ‘what if’ is leading to. What is the absolute worst case scenario – and how likely is it to happen? Like the step above, by acknowledging what you’re afraid of, you’ll be more able to face it in the next step – increasing exposure and learning to live with the discomfort.

Step 3: Take small steps to increase your exposure

All three steps in this strategy have the same thing in common – we are not trying to ‘beat’ anxiety, or make it all go away by pretending it doesn’t exist. We are trying to manage it and make it liveable – the worst thing we can do long term to reduce anxiety is to avoid the situations that make us anxious.

If we’re in a situation we can control, like studying, start with small questions or working with someone else who talks you through the stages, gradually increasing the level of difficulty. Practice really is the best way to improve calculations confidence, but we need to practice things other than six mark exam questions to begin with – no one gets over their fear of spiders by hugging a tarantula!

If you’re in a situation outside your control, like a test, set yourself a small achievable target. When you come across that big calculation question, tell yourself you’re only going to try to get two marks. The next time, aim for three. Whatever you do, don’t just skip it completely – that means you won’t be getting practice under ‘real life’ conditions.

Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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