I remember it like it was yesterday. The feeling of 20 other students looking at the back of my head as I stood at the front of the class near the whiteboard.
I could hear the quiet hum of my classmates whispering to each other. They knew the answer to the math problem that was on the board. Maybe I did too, but I couldn’t get it out. I just stood still, my mind racing as I clutched the marker so hard it made my knuckles white.
After what felt like forever, my teacher finally allowed me to sit down, leaving the math problem unanswered and me feeling like a failure. This happened a few times during my early school years. Each time, it caused me to feel a lot of anxiety.
I have a math learning disability called dyscalculia. Not surprisingly, anxiety makes it worse. Being worried or fearful about failure makes learning math even harder than it already is.
Over the years, though, I’ve been able to manage my anxiety through strategies I’ve learned. Even now, as a college student, I still use these strategies.
Strategy #1: Stop and rest the mind.
When I feel anxious, one of my favorite strategies is to simply take a short break and rest my mind.
In high school math class, I’d sometimes get so anxious that I could feel tears coming. When that happened, I’d close my notebook or push my homework aside. Then, I’d close my eyes and just focus on my breathing for a few minutes or so. This helped me clear my mind so I could start fresh and go back to doing my assignments.
Strategy #2: Take a walk.
Sometimes, when a sitting break isn’t enough, I take a walking break.
In math class, I’d quietly get up and go into the hallway. I’d walk around a bit and move so I could try to shake the anxious feelings. Of course, I always discussed this with my math teacher beforehand so she understood what I was doing. We agreed on a signal for me to use when I needed to leave the class.
Strategy #3: Focus on “the three positives.”
Another tool I use is something I call “the three positives.”
When I feel anxious, I often have negative thoughts about myself and my abilities. My mind tells me that I’m not good enough or not smart enough or that I’ll never be a good student.
When this happens, I take out a sticky note or a sheet of paper. I write down three positive things about myself and read them throughout the day. I know it sounds small, but it helps remind me that I’m smart, hardworking, and capable.
Strategy #4: Sleep well and eat right.
Taking care of the basics really helps me when I feel anxious. So I always try to get a good night’s rest and eat a balanced breakfast. During the day, I also eat light snacks to keep my energy up and my mood consistent.
Strategy #5: Have a mint.
I always carry a box of mints with me. When I feel anxious about math, I eat a mint. The taste and aroma help calm me down. To my high school classmates, I even became known as the “mint girl.”
Strategy #6: Talk to a trusted friend or teacher.
When I feel very overwhelmed, it helps to talk to a trusted teacher or friend. In high school, I could go to my special education teacher who was always nice and very patient with me. She reminded me of strategies I’d used successfully in the past. On top of that, I had a few best friends who could give me a hug whenever I needed one.
Strategy #7: Identify the source of the anxiety.
Over the years, it’s been important for me to pinpoint very specifically what makes me anxious. Raising my hand in class, doing problems in front of my peers, taking a test—I know these things give me anxiety. By identifying my fears, I’ve been better able to work on them.
Strategy #8: Know when it’s too much.
No matter what I do, I know I can’t stop all my feelings of anxiety. That’s why sometimes, I have to step back and just say something is too much for me.
Recently, I withdrew from my college algebra class because I was feeling too anxious about the work. I knew I needed more help with the material and was overloaded with other classes. As sad as I was about having to withdraw, I knew my limits and that I had to take care of myself. I didn’t want to put myself in a bad situation.
When you have anxiety from learning challenges, it’s not about giving up. It’s about finding a different path. This summer, I’ll be taking college algebra again—but with a lighter course load and more mental preparation.