Taylor Clark, author of Starbucked (2007), has long had problems with anxiety. Unhappy with the books he was finding on the subject, Clark decided to write one himself. A lively, eye-opening read, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool features fascinating research on fear, anxiety and stress, as well as compelling stories from people who have faced intensely challenging situations.
The opening section of the book is called “The Nervous Trinity,” a reference to fear, anxiety and stress. Are these three things so different from each other?
It’s true they are related, but they are still very different.
The simplest way to put it is that fear is a more physiological reaction to a danger right in front of you. You’re walking down the street, for example, and a tiger appears in your path. You immediately feel fear and either freeze or take flight. Anxiety can feel similar, but it’s a cognitive phenomenon. You’re worrying over things that could happen in the future—and even things that probably aren’t ever going to happen.
Stress obviously has a life all its own. Everyone feels stress. Soldiers I talked to said that people who are immune to stress in outright stressful situations, like combat, aren’t working with a full deck. They’re sociopaths who can’t register the seriousness of the situation.
Do you hope that Nerve raises awareness of what you call our “second brain”—the amygdala, our brain’s fear control center?
When I started to grasp the extent of what the amygdala does, one of the most liberating insights came down to my own fears and anxieties: They really are out of my control.
People will get down on themselves for feeling anxious or fearing things. They’ll feel shame, or think they’re doing something wrong. But it’s not under your conscious control. We can’t help what we’re afraid of. It’s not a personal failing.
Dealing with fear and anxieties as enemies is a counterproductive way to look at it. Your brain is not trying to hurt you but trying to keep you safe. The more understanding we have of this, the more free we can be of self-recrimination and deal with our issues—have a better relationship with them.
You interviewed a variety of people who have either learned to work with their fears and anxieties, or have been defeated by them. Which of them stands out most in your mind?
My favorite person in the book is a gentleman named Dan Stockwell. When he was a young man, he dove into choppy waters to save a fellow student who was drowning. As a high school principal, he entered a classroom to handle a student who had a gun. This is a guy who’s done very heroic things. But he’s been dealing with strong anxiety issues his whole life, and he’s learned to accept them.
Anxiety has a real way of making you think you can’t do things. It’s really not like that at all. Some of the people who we most admire are people who deal with tons of anxiety. One of the most fascinating facts in the book is that when you look at competitive athletes, swimmers for example, both elite and lower level performers have the same levels of anxiety. The only difference is how they view that anxiety. It’s transformative when you realize that you can deal with it.
Some of your subjects have done incredible things in some of the most stressful and terrifying situations. Are these people somehow superhuman?
A guy like Al Haynes, a pilot who managed a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989, has tens of thousands of hours in the cockpit. The cool headedness people see is really just the tip of the iceberg. Below is a huge collection of experience, training and wisdom that kicks in. It’s like riding a bike or touch-typing … there are webs of patterns etched into these experts’ brains that make them capable of being coolheaded and doing heroic things.
That idea of the value of training and experience runs throughout Nerve. It almost suggests that no matter how much you fly, you should always listen to the flight attendant’s presentation.
Yes, you could say that. In fact, after doing this book, the one thing I do now whenever I get on a plane is look for the nearest exit. It’s almost certainly never going to be an important piece of information, but if I was ever going to need it, I want it in my memory.
Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool
Little, Brown / March 6, 2011 / 9780316042895 / $25.99