Confession time: I make a living writing about money but I hate math. And “hate” is putting it lightly.
If you dropped an algebra book on my desk right now I’d probably burst into tears. I still use a calculator to make sure I’m leaving the right tip when I go out to eat. But for all the anxiety math brings me, I make a living writing about money.
For all the anxiety math brings me, I’m working on conquering my fear so I can make sure my financial situation is secure.
Sound crazy? Read on to find out why it’s not – and how you can overcome your math anxiety.
What is math anxiety?
It’s not always easy to know the difference between not liking something and something that brings genuine anxiety into your life.
When it comes math, the anxiety is real if it goes far beyond a simple distaste for the subject. Tutoring company Oxford Learning outlines the symptoms to show what is math anxiety:
- Having abnormal amounts of nervousness on the subject.
- Being unwilling to try to get better.
- Believing you’re alone in your fear of the subject.
- Feeling like this is a permanent state of being for you.
- Having a lack of confidence about the subject.
- Panicking whenever your knowledge is tested.
If this sounds like you, there’s a good chance you have math anxiety – not just math loathing. And as normal as it may be, it’s not something to ignore.
Managing money involves math. And not dealing with your money or math could lead to severe financial problems. Psychology Today highlights just how serious this anxiety can be:
Eventually, math anxiety can be a slippery slope: Anxiety leads to avoidance, which can lead to low performance, which in turn leads to more anxiety and the positive feedback loop of mathematical disaster is off and running.
Remember the last time you messed up on your budget? Did you go back to your budget and find a way to rectify the situation and improve your chances of success for next time? Or did you stop budgeting altogether?
Money avoidance is never good. If math anxiety is leading you down that path, then it’s incredibly important that you make changes now.
Tips for overcoming math anxiety
As someone who suffers from math anxiety, I’ve run the gamut of strategies for overcoming it. For me, it comes down to keeping things as simple as possible. But when certain topics – such as investing – come up, my brain threatens to shut down.
That’s why I decided it was time to talk to a psychologist about it. And who better to talk to than someone who wrote the book on beating anxiety? Here’s what licensed clinical psychologist Helen Odessky, Psy.D., says to do if you’re working on overcoming math anxiety:
1. Stop telling yourself you can’t do it
Telling yourself you’re bad at something will never help you improve. In fact, Dr. Odessky warns that it can lead to feeling defeated. She suggests thinking of past math challenges you’ve hurdled and telling yourself you can do it again.
2. Do the difficult thing first
It’s so easy to put off hard tasks. But Dr. Odessky warns that putting things off until the end means you’re already mentally drained before you tackle them.
Don’t do this to yourself. Start with the money management tasks first so you’re fresh and alert.
3. Schedule time to work on it
Let’s face it, if you have math anxiety, you’re never going to want to work on your finances. That’s why you should set a recurring event on your calendar that you’ll feel accountable for.
And don’t think you have to do it all at once. Dr. Odessky suggests splitting the task and letting the momentum carry you forward:
“Tell yourself you will work for 30 minutes, and then you get 30 minutes for yourself to tackle something else. Once you get going, you might find that you want to keep working on it longer, since getting started really is the hardest part.”
4. Get help
Here’s some good news: if you have math anxiety and it’s hurting your money management, you don’t have to go it alone. It’s not always easy to ask for help, but there are so many resources out there nowadays that even those comfortable with math could benefit from seeking them out.
And Dr. Odessky reminds us of some of the best times to seek help:
“If math isn’t your strong suit, but you need to do your taxes, have a math savvy friend join you or hire an accountant. Use online calculators for mortgage payments and any tool that makes your life simpler.”
5. Reward yourself
Finally, don’t forget to reward yourself for biting the bullet and facing the big hairy beast that is math. Just make sure the reward isn’t something that will cost money – because then you might take your progress backward.
Dr. Odessky suggests free activities that you like to do, such as going for a long bike ride, heading to the beach (if you’re lucky enough to live near one), and having lunch with a friend. Whatever it is you enjoy doing, make sure you follow up the act of working on your finances with this activity, so you create a positive association with a task you dislike.
Don’t let math anxiety win
No matter what you do, don’t let the anxiety you feel whenever numbers come up prevent you from creating your ideal financial future. In the end, you’ll only hurt yourself.
Follow the steps above so you can work towards at least turning your math anxiety into a subtle math distaste. You might never learn to love math, but you can learn to coexist with it. And when you do, financial success can follow.
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