Flavor: Math anxiety – “I should be doing more math”.

1. What’s going on mathematically?

I haven’t done math in a while (a day or a few days), and I start to get a nagging feeling that I should.

2. What is the emotional and logistical context?

I’ve probably been distracted doing something fun, so I’m happy, or rested, or at least distracted. The nagging arrives on its own accord.

3. What thoughts are there?

The story of becoming a self-motivated learner and a self-directed researcher, is the story of internalizing the Teacher/Student archetype. I’ve successfully established a firm teacher and a curious student, coexisting within my mind. Not a day goes by without a discussion between them: What should I do? How should I do it? If the teacher isn’t strict enough, then nothing gets done. If the teacher is firm, or the student is procrastinating, then this slow nagging starts to build.

My thoughts go back and forth between the teacher and student in my head, making To Do lists, lists of research questions, trying to decide when and where to work next. I’m not really *doing* math, just thinking about doing it. (The instant I sit down and start working, all the back and forth, and all the anxiety, vanishes.) When it’s bad, the nagging will grow into anxiety, which can become debilitating. I procrastinate, divert, find excuses.

But I also rationalize, and sometimes this is good. Sometimes I don’t really need to do more math, and the teacher just needs to take a chill pill.

4. What quality of awareness?

I’m avoiding, skirting around, hemming and hawing, hiding and lying to myself. As the anxiety grows, at first a distant ache and gradually coming more to the center, I might become fixated on it. Then I lose track of what’s reasonable – I might be super busy, with no sane way of fitting in math that day, but I can’t see this, I can only see my anxiety.

The nagging is unsettling in its persistence. It grows so steadily, getting louder and louder and eclipsing my present. I know that thinking about (or dwelling on) it only feeds it, and so I try to push it out of my awareness. This never works.

But sometimes there is a small breakdown, and a small breakthrough of awareness. I confront the truth of the moment, confront my expectations of myself. The struggling student asks forgiveness, the teacher backs off and forgives. With clarity, I can broker an agreement that both are happy with.

5. What emotions?

A persistent growth from nagging, to anxious, to panic – it’s just a question of when I can’t handle it any more and sit down to do math, or confront it and reassess my priorities. Nagging makes me impatient and irritable. I feel burdened with responsibility and seriousness. Anxiety gives me a sick, nauseous feeling.

6. What does it resolve to, after how much time?

If I sit down and start doing math, it all goes away in an instant. If I confront the anxiety and reassess my priorities, I’m usually left with an appreciation of the teacher’s effort. This anxiety is a necessary evil – it pushes me, fuels me, challenges me.

I’m bewildered that awareness of this fact – the power and utility of an internalized teacher/student dynamic – doesn’t prevent future anxiety attacks. My teacher doesn’t seem to mellow out; I still have the same swings of gut-wrenching anxiety and heart-wrenching reconciliation, as when I was fifteen.

7. How frequent is this flavor?

Since I started grad school five years ago, I don’t think I’ve gone more than 48 hours without the math teacher in my head chiming in. (It doesn’t help that I seem to have a whole panel of internal auditors, nagging me on a daily basis.) The anxiety that makes me nauseous happens about twice a month.

8. What are good/bad ways to change or follow it up?

I don’t think the answer is to have the student always submit to the teacher, diligently setting to work every time the nagging gets to a certain level. I think the two must keep each other in check, and that might be why I let the anxiety grow until a breaking point.

Mathematics is infinite, and in my lifetime I’ll never know it all, or more than I tiny slice of it all. Given this fact, and the facts of the world in which a mathematical lifestyle are embedded – the ignorance, suffering, beauty, and wonder – how do you decide how much math you should do today?



Alan Lightman has a book of short stories, called Einstein’s Dreams. One story imagines a world where people live forever. How do you live today, faced with eternity and infinity? Without any standard of “enough,” half the people race around doing, doing, and doing. The other half waste time and do nothing, putting everything off until tomorrow.


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