Math anxiety is a real condition. Many students find themselves getting anxious during math class or before an exam. While many struggle with math and the accompanying stress, there might be an easy fix.
According to new research from San Francisco State University, if you are the anxious type, whether it’s over math or speaking publicly or taking other tests, if you sit up straight, you not only do better, you feel a bit calmer as well.
In a recent study, researchers at SFSU tested 125 college students on simple math problems. The participants were asked to subtract seven from 843, and then keep subtracting seven from each answer. The test was designed to be something where the students had to concentrate but was a common task that is simple enough for most people to complete. The students were timed, spending 15 seconds in each round subtracting, getting an answer and then continuing the chain of subtraction problems. They were asked to do this slumped over, with poor neck and back posture as well as sitting up straight, feet flat on the floor.
The results? 56% of the students tested said it was easier to do the problems when they were sitting up. Apparently, when the body slumps, the brain can slack off as well. Professor of Health Education Erik Peper explained, “For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference. The slumped-over position shuts them down, and their brains do not work as well. They cannot think as clearly. You have a choice. It’s about using an empowered position to optimize your focus.”
Peper feels that sitting up rather than slouching can help anyone perform better, not just students. Anyone who has had to present something in front of a group, perform in a theater, or play in an important game has felt performance anxiety, but posture could be a quick fix that not only keeps the body in better shape but tamps down on mental stress as well.
The anxiety part of the equation is essential as well. Before beginning the math exercises, students filled out questionnaires on their stress levels, anxiety during tests and any physical symptoms like sweating, rapid heartbeat or tremors. Students who reported higher levels of anxiety found themselves marginally calmer when they were sitting up versus slumped over, but the real difference was in how difficult the problems seemed. Most of the students reported having less difficulty with the problems when sitting straight in their chairs. The brain has learned to interpret the position of being slumped over as being associated with negative memories, such as being sick or feeling defeated or sad and this impacts how the brain functions when trying to complete cognitive tasks.
Laura Mason, one of the paper’s authors and an SF State grad, explained how math anxiety, in particular, could be challenging to manage. “I always felt insecure about my math abilities even though I excelled at other subjects. You build a relationship with [math] so early — as early as elementary school. You can carry that negative self-talk throughout your life, impacting your perception of yourself.” Mason said that excellent posture could be a confidence builder, empowering students to get past their anxiety. Check out the clip below to learn more about the research.