Math frightens many, many people. I know this because I was a math teacher for several years before I became a psychologist. In psychology graduate school I taught statistics and tutored my classmates in it, and I learned two things: first, people with math phobia always believe that they can’t do math, and second, nine out ten time times they are wrong. Usually, the problem is anxiety, not lack of ability.
When I realized this I developed a treatment for math phobia that combines math tutoring with cognitive-behavior therapy. In this treatment I have a math-phobic client do math problems, teaching necessary math concepts and skills while also correcting the client’s cognitive distortions about math. Math is difficult even for those who are
good at it, and making mistakes and fixing them is part of the process. Math-phobic clients usually experience normal difficulties and mistakes as proof of their incompetence or stupidity, and this is so emotionally painful that they can no longer concentrate on the problem, which just proves even more that there is no way they could ever succeed at math.
This vicious cycle, of anxiety producing failure and
failure producing anxiety, can actually be broken
fairly easily. When clients make mistakes, I not only
teach the necessary math but also address the
cognitive distortions triggered by the mistakes, and
then teach clients how to self-monitor so that they
can recognize and refute the cognitive distortions
without me. This lowers anxiety, which allows the client to concentrate, which creates more and more success, which lowers anxiety further. The treatment flips the vicious cycle into a virtuous one.
There are some people who have dyscalculia, the math equivalent of dyslexia, meaning that they actually do have some degree of math disability. I screen for this, and recommend intensive tutoring instead of my treatment for those who have it. But in my experience, most people who are good in other subjects but terrified of math have an anxiety problem, not an academic one.
Thomas B. Hollenbach, Ph.D.
For those seeking a counseling or a therapy treatment for a math phobia or math anxiety, the Integrative Therapy Institute of New Jersey has two offices, one in Metuchen in Middlesex County and the other in Montclair in Essex County, where we also screen for dyscalculia. Our Metuchen office is convenient to the Middlesex County towns of Edison, Woodbridge, South Plainfield, Piscataway, Highland Park, New Brunswick, East Brunswick, Sayreville, Dunellen, and Middlesex. For residents of Union County, the Metuchen office is near to the towns of Scotch Plains, Clark, Westfield, Plainfield, Garwood, and Fanwood. For residents of Somerset County we are near to the towns of North Plainfield, Green Brook, Bound Brook, South Bound Brook, Bridgewater, and Franklin, New Jersey.
Our Montclair office is convenient to the Essex County towns of Glen Ridge, Cedar Grove, Verona, Essex Fells, Bloomfield, Nutley, Caldwell, North Caldwell, and West Caldwell. Slightly farther away are Fairfield, Roseland, Livingston, Milburn, Orange, East Orange, and South Orange. For residents of Passaic County, we are near to the towns of Clifton, Little Falls, Woodland Park, and Totowa, New Jersey.
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