How to control emotions while studying
February 20, 2023 5:30 AM   Subscribe

Hey guys ... I'm currently doing an Intro to statistics course at a local uni. How do I NOT do something embarrassing like scream at the teacher or cry in class? More under the cut....

So anyway I am taking an Intro to statistics class. It's going to be week 4 out of a 5 to 6 week semester. Things go fast here. So its a three hour lecture at night.

Anyway, I got completely lost after week 2 when things started getting hard.

I have a long history of crying when I study and find that I don't understand. So.... I will not be continuing with these classes but I want to finish what I paid for.

So .... when I read the textbook, its just words. When I am in class, its just WORDS. And none of it makes sense or connects. I think I am going to get a heart attack.

So, how do I deal with this? I think .... it also brings back traumaatic memories of being in school.

So, how do I not cry when I am in class and nothing makes sense? OK.... writing this is making me cry. Just tell me its not unusual or anything.
posted by Didnt_do_enough to Education (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A few thoughts -

- Sunk cost fallacy - just because you’ve paid for these lessons doesn’t mean you have to take them. The money is gone whether you take the classes or not, why add to that loss by suffering through classes that aren’t teaching you anything?
- Ask for advice from the teacher - can you do this by email to avoid tears? Explain you’re struggling and ask whether there’s any supplementary material she could give you to help bridge the gap; or whether she can recommend another course that would move at a pace more suited to you, or give you some more background knowledge.
- Therapy - if this is a deep seated problem that’s going to cause you issues with learning in future, and you’d like to keep learning, it might be a worthwhile investment.
- There’s a great online course called Learning How to Learn - it’s the most-used MOOC in the world, and is really good at explaining how the process of learning works, and how to learn successfully. It’s a joy to take, and you might find it has some useful tips for you (sorry, am on phone and it’s fiddly to link but will be easily googleable).
posted by penguin pie at 5:41 AM on February 20 [12 favorites]

Do you have access to any tutoring resources through your university?

I've always found that the biggest benefit of tutoring is not necessarily the tutoring itself, but just having someone to talk to one-on-one about the material — someone who is compassionate and understanding and more of a peer rather than a professor.

You might have to try a few tutors until you find one who you click with, but when you do it can be magical.

(And you're definitely not alone -- feeling lost in a class makes me want to cry too! It's frustrating.)
posted by mekily at 5:49 AM on February 20 [14 favorites]

Oof I remember this feeling from Intermediate Accounting II. Try to take advantage of office hours if your teacher has them. Your teacher wants to help you understand the content; that’s why they are there. Also when you read the textbook, try reading aloud slowly and if you don’t understand something, don’t plow ahead, read the passage again over and over. Sometimes with technical fields, the textbooks can be poorly written or badly edited. If your teacher can give you problem sets with answers that you can check, do a ton of those. When you get a problem wrong, rework it until you can figure out where it went wrong. Also, expect a lower grade than you would get in a class that is more up your alley. If you are used to strong grades it can be really hard to learn that in more technical classes like this, passing is good. This content is hard and it’s ok to have just a passing level understanding.
posted by donut_princess at 6:06 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

My sympathies.

A couple things that might help:

Take 20-60 minutes to write down ten beliefs you have about perfection, mistakes, or failure -- even if those beliefs "don't make sense" or you're ashamed of them, or want to change them. Maybe some of those beliefs come from the bad times you had at school in the past. It can be easier to argue with unhelpful beliefs once you see them in front of you, outside of your head. Then you can work on replacing those beliefs with new ones like "It's okay to make mistakes while studying; I'm not hurting anyone" or "confusion while learning a new subject is temporary and typical".

Remember how you have learned difficult things in the past, things where at first you made mistakes but then you grasped things better and made fewer mistakes. (This is called "appreciative inquiry" -- looking at things that worked and seeing what patterns we can copy for the future.) What helped you learn those things? A safe place to ask questions where no one would judge you for not knowing something? A way to practice in private? A group of other people learning at the same time as you, so you could watch them and learn from their mistakes? Thinking back to what helped you learn in the past can help you figure out how to find or make those supports as you learn statistics.

Check out these links about how "Deep learning is hard work. The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning". The feeling of learning can be misleading; for a lot of us, the feeling "I am not grasping this and I don't understand it at all" feels really bad, and gets in the way of us being able to assess how far we are on the pathway towards understanding. If you know that, maybe you can start to tell yourself that confusion is normal, and that it does not need to be alarming.

When you are studying and you come across something that doesn't make sense to you, and you feel really bad, like you are going to have a heart attack or you want to cry or scream, give yourself permission to take a break. Take five minutes to do something that calms you down physically, like massaging lotion onto your skin, stretching your legs, or square breathing. These are ways to remind yourself that you are in control of your own body and the choices you make and what you pay attention to.

In general it sounds like you find the feeling of uncertainty and confusion intolerable, and it drives you to panic. You are not alone. There are lots of people who feel like this. And yes, this is the kind of problem that therapy can help with. Good luck.
posted by brainwane at 6:25 AM on February 20 [11 favorites]

This was me in calculus class in college. Seriously, get a tutor RIGHT NOW. it will really really help.
posted by capnsue at 6:27 AM on February 20 [7 favorites]

Sorry to not answer the direct question on its own, but I remembered one of your previous Asks and just looked through your question history.

Almost all of your questions seem to be centred on an awful cycle of feelings of obligation and inadequacy with "a good / proper / worthwhile education" the focal point at the centre.

Are you doing this course because you really wanted to, or is it tied into your situation with living at home and your mum brow-beating you if you don't study xyz in the way she thinks would be best ?

Have you made any progress on the mental health treatment side of things ?

I'm a former adult education teacher and have worked with pupils who were struggling to complete course cycles. I've also had clinical anxiety, amongst other significant mental health problems in my past.

Your description doesn't sound like struggling with the subject worries, it sounds like panic attacks. You are under no obligation to put yourself in a position that makes you feel like this; your health comes ahead of everything else.

If you're determined to push on through the remaining courses and / or don't have current mental health support in working through things, anti-anxiety breathwork can help get the physical responses you describe under control. 4-7-8 breathing i.e. breathe in for 4 seconds, hold breath for 7 seconds, breathe out for 8 seconds is a good starting point. Try to practice this when you're feeling ok as well as when you're not.

I'm really sorry you're going through this. Please put your own health ahead of anything else.
posted by protorp at 6:42 AM on February 20 [15 favorites]

I have an advanced degree that involved a fair bit of math, and a non-traditional educational background (high school dropout, worked my way through state school branch campus to main campus to good test scores to top grad school). And along the way there were several times when I felt just like you describe, math or theory heavy courses where everything was just words and didn't seem to connect up, or when I thought I had connections they turned out to be wrong. And in all of those times, it was because there were unstated assumptions about prerequisites for the class. Things didn't connect up because I did not have the background experiences to connect them to. If you don't have that background framework going in, you can't make your brain bridge those gaps just by trying very hard. It's not your fault and it's not your brain's fault. You need to get the background first. If your teacher is good you might be able to have a good discussion about that and figure out if supplemental material can help you catch up, or whether you'd do better to drop for now and go back to a point that does click for you and work forward from there. But I know how awful it feels to be sitting there when it all refuses to make sense. It's not your fault.
posted by Rhedyn at 6:50 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

I am a math professor. I am not your math professor. (But this is academic advice)

Seriously, office hours, or email if you don't trust yourself emotionally in person. Most of us want to connect with our struggling students rather than watch them suffer in silence, and really want to help. "Everything just seems like words that don't connect" is an understandable problem, but it is a tricky one to help with, though, because usually we want to figure out where things ran off the rails. Figure out the last thing in the course that you did have the big picture on, and let the instructor know that it's after that concept that things stopped coming together for you.
posted by jackbishop at 6:52 AM on February 20 [13 favorites]

Just tell me its not unusual or anything.

I recently finished a very long, very difficult project for work. I felt like crying or screaming much of the time. This has happened enough times before that I'm finally learning to not get worked up about the fact that I get worked up. Until recently I used to get completely sidetracked every time it happened, spiralling into endless thoughts about how awful it is and how I'll never be done with it and how I hate it so much and how I'm so bad at it. Culminating in a general "I can't!" That was a very good way to make the project take many times longer than it would have otherwise, and didn't even make me feel better in any way, just more panicked and stressed.

These days, every time I want to scream, I take some deep breaths. I tell myself "yup, it really is a mess, isn't it?" Also, "little by little, you can handle this". I try to laugh at some of the especially terrible parts. Most of all, I recognize the feeling as one I've had millions of times before and just accept it and move on. It didn't make the project much less of a bear (warthog? porcupine?), but a lot less screaming happened and a ton less time was wasted on me stressing over my stress and wallowing in the pain of it all. And sometimes when I just acknowledged the frustration but didn't give it my attention, I found that the thing that set me off wasn't that bad after all. (Sometimes it was. But little by little, I handled it.)

That said, consider whether you really do need to do this course, and whether therapy and/or anxiety meds might help. They do for a lot of people dealing with this.
posted by trig at 7:34 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

I am a professor. I teach a very mathy subject.

You will not be the first person to cry in your professor's office. You can go and get help, you can cry, and a good professor will help you through it. The professor may also help you connect with tutoring and mental health resources that are available to you.

It's not your fault that you are struggling with an unusual amount of anxiety around this. You are taking responsibility here and looking for ways to manage your anxiety, and that shows a lot of strength.

It would also take a lot of bravery to drop this course if you don't think you can be successful and it is causing you a lot of anguish.

Choose the path that is best for your health.
posted by BrashTech at 8:02 AM on February 20 [6 favorites]

It's not you. Statistics is legendary for being difficult, and you're doing 3 hours once a week. for a short period. Tons of people take Statistics a couple times to pass it. You aren't stupid or incompetent. You may not have the math background to grasp the subject quickly. That doesn't mean you can't grasp it.

It's not uncommon, esp. for women, for frustration, fear, distress to cause tears. Emotional tears contain hormones, tears of pain or eye irritation don't. I believe we're taught this, at least that's part of it. Tears are incapacitating, and women are taught to be helpless. There's said to be an accupressure point in the flesh between the thumb and hand; try massaging that. Whether it's accupressure or not, it can help a little with managing tears. And you can tell yourself that tears won't rule your life. They're embarrassing, sure, and because they're considered feminine, they're really treated poorly. Try to talk through and work through tears at home. In public, go splash cool water on your face. When I have an emotional meeting scheduled (like when I was getting divorced), I'd put a washcloth in my bag, knowing tears were likely. Tears aren't shameful.

Your school or instructor should have some study assistance. Ask for help. You paid for learning, not just academic credit, and if you want to stay in class, learn as much as you can. When I've been in a class that was overwhelming, I started a study group, and I also learned that a lot of my classmates were taking the class for the 2nd time, or were professionals learning a new skill in a familiar field. If it's too miserable, cut your losses.

If your doctor will prescribe it, a very small amount of Xanax can help manage emotions.
posted by theora55 at 8:44 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

I’m a statistician, and I can tell you there were courses during my degree where I felt lost and confused, too. My strategies: talk to the professors; find a tutor; do all the homework; remember why I was doing it. That last is key and I agree with others who have said you shouldn’t feel you have to push on at all costs.
posted by eirias at 9:00 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

I'm in my 60's and my degree is in Math/Computer Science from the 70's. But you know what courses were beyond me? Numerical Analysis, Statistics and Philosophy. I wish I had made it through Numeric Analysis because it's useful to a programmer (I got an Incomplete). Statistics I didn't think I'd need but yeah, it's hard, as eirias said. Philosophy to me was just words, and I barely passed. Also, I can remember feeling overwhelmed a couple times during my college career. This was just to let you know you're not alone. The answers above seem like great advice to me.
posted by forthright at 9:23 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]

You are far from the first person to feel frustration with a statistics class!

I have always struggled in math classes and had a terrible time in grad-level stats with a professor who had an antagonistic relationship towards students. It was so frustrating and several folks in the class cried pretty regularly.

I found that just doing problem sets was by far the most helpful way for me keep up with the assignments.

I highly recommend a resource like Statistics: 1001 Practice Problems For Dummies. Low stakes opportunity to practice and see what concepts you're getting and which ones you need more explanation. Then you can low stakes test yourself again to see what you still need to work on.
posted by forkisbetter at 10:44 AM on February 20

It's going to be week 4 out of a 5 to 6 week semester. Things go fast here.

I have a PhD and now teach at the college level, so I'm pretty confident I am at least somewhat intelligent, and my conclusion from taking an 8-week intensive language class was "This was fun and I certainly learned things, but I'm going to have to re-take this next year." And I'm so glad I did - it meant I really mastered the material the second time around, and I knew others who just pushed ahead who later regretted it.

Whatever you glean from this intensive class, even if you need to re-take it, is not wasted energy. If you will really need stats for your career, I'd encourage you to retake the class, going at the normal pace. You will not be the first person to do this, I promise, and it will be a minor blip that you will barely remember in 10 years. If this is just a box to tick, then I'd go to the professor, and say "I'm really struggling, and right now my goal is just to pass - can you help me strategize for how to do that?" This is something I do with students all the time who are struggling - this is part of every professor's job, and you shouldn't feel bad about asking them to do their job.
posted by coffeecat at 10:48 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]

I’m a statistician and I cried my way through the UK equivalent of grad school, including that infamous one time I cried in a viva. (Yes, really.)

Two things:

(1) When I moved into the world of work, I trained myself so that if I was about to cry, I would stop what I was doing, go backwards through my thoughts in my mind until the point where I was not about to cry, and then take a deep breath and start thinking forwards again. This trick works for me to stop me crying in public. (I still cry in the toilets from time to time but I think that’s okay.)

(2) A lot of statistics is badly taught generally. If you share what topics your class covers, we MeFites might be able to suggest some supplementary resources that explain the same concepts in multiple ways to help you get to grips with the course content.
posted by Erinaceus europaeus at 12:03 PM on February 20 [4 favorites]

Neurologically, this is not unusual! I wish I had bookmarked a paper I found years ago - it was specifically about emotional dysregulation while learning a new language, but it came down to: installing giant gobs of new information in the brain is stressful to the nervous system. Even when highly gamified, which a lot of language-learning is and math is generally NOT, you still can't really generate enough dopamine to totally cover up the brain-pain of learning.

If you've ever played video games, you may recognize the feeling from that as well, where you reach the controller-throwing moment of "I'm NEVER going to get past this level GRARRRRHHR". And there are studies that show if you take a break or sleep on it, you will actually be better later. This is a lot harder to do in the middle of stats class, unfortunately.

For me, knowing this helped me tremendously. I can take a breath and be like "the brain drain's got me pained, don't panic." It does often mean I need to take a run at the material from another angle, and that's why everyone is telling you to GO TO OFFICE HOURS because that's what they're for, and seek out tutoring because that's precisely how you get those alternate angles. They have dealt with this before! They have techniques for helping!

My hack for getting through class in the immediate future is the Poor Man's Xanax: Benadryl. I take a children's chewable (it's half the adult dose) when I'm in a situation where I've already got myself so spun out I can barely walk through the door/log in to the material, much less process anything. The drowsiness will mellow you out, and you might even find it lets you kind of vibe and let the material wash over you in a way that - now that you're not panicking - starts to make a little sense and maybe everything's going to be okay after all. I have used other substances, a good B Complex stress formula is also pretty helpful, and I use Magnesium (with Calcium and Zinc for bioavailability) at home for stress but it can have a fairly rapid bowel response that you don't want to deal with in class. But there is a bit of magnesium in electrolyte drinks that won't be enough to create a bathroom emergency, and every little bit helps.

If you don't meditate, though, you might take up the habit just to learn to center and calm yourself in advance of a stressful situation so you can get out of your own way. And then go to office hours.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:20 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]

Any chance you have ADHD? I'm pretty sure I do and I'm pretty sure it's related to my meltdown feelings when I try to learn unrewarding things.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:39 PM on February 20

Your school likely has a tutoring or learning or study center of some kind with patient, skilled tutors who have helped LOTS of people taking intro to stats. So give them a call and see if you can make an appointment to start getting caught up.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:50 PM on February 20

You're not alone. That was me through my sophomore year of college taking physics, stats and organic chem at the same time. I cried in my stats prof's office more than once. What I didn't do (and regret) is get a tutor.

My senior year, I worked as a tutor and had students cry during sessions. Stats is hard. Calc based stats even more so.
posted by kathrynm at 4:42 PM on February 20

Hi! I too remember some of your previous asks, and had previously written out a pretty long answer that I ultimately trashed - I was worried about projecting too much of my own experiences on your situation, because I've had similar experiences with school and mental health issues, and am located in the same country as you.

Lots of people have given you lots of good advice and reassurance, especially regarding this particular situation you have found yourself in, but like protorp, I do suspect there's an overarching issue (or issues) that underpin your askmefi posts. This doesn't mean that you are lacking in any way, or that you are doomed to repeat the same patterns you have already identified ad infinitum - it just means that there might be an easier way to resolve some of the emotional hangups you have been facing, if you addressed the core issues underlying them.

If you need recommendations for therapists or doctors, or want to vent, do memail me. :)
posted by seapig at 5:46 PM on February 20

What you are trying to do... is hard. And if there are tears involved in the process... it's okay! You are doing the best you can. But the good news is that it sounds like the worst consequence to you is that you are out some $$. Which isn't amazing, but I think you can take some pressure off yourself. This attempt is your reconnaissance mission.

There are lots of "self study" stats options out there between youtube (e.g.), khan academy, "stats for dummies" type books, etc. However one thing that a formal course taught at a college/university should have is assistance from actual people. Go to office hours. Seek out the math/stat help room. Find a compatible tutor. In my book, it's not a waste to use the remainder of this term to figure out how you learn statistics.

Before you enroll in stats class again, you may want to talk to an academic advisor*. An academic advisor probably won't (or can't) tell you which professor to avoid. But such advisor probably can probably advise you which professor might be a good fit for your needs.

*Or at least check rate my professors.
posted by oceano at 7:12 PM on February 20

Response by poster: Hi everyone. It was really helpful to hear that
1) its not an uncommon feeling
2) I should get a tutor.

I don't know if its helpful, in technical subjects, to need to FEEL the intuitiveness or FEEL the definition of something. Because to me, a lot of the definitions don't make sense.

Yesterday my mother ended up finding one of the neighbours to explain some of it for me, and he very kindly did so. So what followed was I basically repeated what I could remember happening in class and then afterwards he told me how to do some of the questions in the back of the book. And then today I am going to go and solve the questions to see if I have recall.

In addition, I ended up emailing the professor.

Basically whenever I get stressed I want to give up and I just don't want to solve the issue. So maybe I should try reframing problems.

The last thing is, I really appreciate the stories about .... crying while doing homework. School was incredibly isolating because everything seemed designed to be horrible. Filled with competition, and everytime I did homework I wasn't sure if it was going to be graded right or wrong.
posted by Didnt_do_enough at 9:35 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]

Talking to someone about a subject and eventually teaching it to someone else is a good way to learn. I haven't fully tested this out and you have to be careful of incorrect info, but you could try chatting with ChatGPT about the subject.
posted by lookoutbelow at 9:44 AM on February 21

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