In his intelligent and sharp-witted book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool Taylor Clark is incredibly brave for tackling a topic like anxiety and fear without a psychology degree or a Purple Heart. He embraces the subject as a normal guy who is curious to know why he freaks out from time to time, and because of that his book is accessible, entertaining, informative, and, in many ways, brilliant.
It’s the best book on fear I’ve ever read, attributed to Clark’s signature mix of self-deprecating humor and thorough, exhaustive research on the topic. Unlike so many other psychologists or mental health professionals who fill the introduction with their qualifications to write on a topic, Clark endears himself to his readers from the start with this confession:
During the research process for this book, as I’d be interviewing an expert or telling a friend about my latest findings, people frequently asked me the following question, sometimes delicately and sometimes with obvious skepticism: “What, exactly, makes you qualified to write a book telling people how they should deal with their fears?” … To answer the question, I am not at all qualified to tell anyone how to expertly manage their fears.
Clark goes on to say that he wrote the book because he has experienced long stretches of anxiety and his best efforts often made things worse. He walked up and down self-help aisles in pursuit of a little advice or explanation but came away disappointed.
Psychologists wrote clinical books. People without degrees wrote inspirational stuff that was “stuffed with syrupy clichés.” So he decided to interview every expert who would talk to him and play with their theories and studies. In seven substantial chapters, he covers the research of today’s prominent brain experts: Johns Hopkins University behaviorist John B. Watson, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, University of Illinois’s Evelyn Behar, Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, neuroscientist Richard Davidson, and Columbia University psychologist Kevin Ochsner, just to name a few.
Every page of Nerve contains some interesting statistic or fascinating study; however, the reader doesn’t realize she is learning so much because Clark’s prose is so entertaining, fun, and imaginative. He is a perfect translator between the very technical world of medicine and brain science to a media-saturated world of readers who prefer crisp, succinct, give-it-to-me-like-I’m-stupid sound bites that they can absorb in a second or less.
For example, to explain mistake number two that we make with our anxiety, Clark uses a Star Trek analogy which clearly communicates a complicated, abstract phenomenon:
It’s time for a thought experiment. Imagine that you’ve been beamed Star Trek-style into a woodland glade—a situation that seems pleasant enough until you notice a bear nosing around nearby, oblivious to your presence for now. In this iffy predicament, you’ll feel not just pure fear (in the form of a light-enabling burst of adrenaline) but plenty of anxiety as well: What is it notices me? What if it attacks? What if it has access to the Star Trek transporter?
My favorite sections include the list of eight mistakes most of us make in processing our fears:
- Being born that way
- Seeking unattainable certainty and control
- Worrying about it
- Suppressing your feelings and thoughts
- Buying in to distorted thinking
- Living a modern life
- Disappearing into the future
- Avoiding what scares us
Each chapter includes an analysis of profound, historical events, like Gordon Cooper’s ambitious mission to space in Faith 7. On his nineteenth orbit, he ran into trouble and Cooper lost telemetry, his cooling and oxygen purification systems, and the gyroscopes failed. He would have to perform a feat that had never been accomplished: steering his way back through the earth’s atmosphere manually, with no help from his instrument panel. As Clark writes, “Cooper’s performance that day surely ranks in the pantheon of cool-headed accomplishments under pressure. With the entire country watching him and his very life on the line, he overcame physical stress and his own intense fear—and by all physiological reports, he was plenty afraid—to accomplish a feat that had never been seen in spaceflight.”
With inspiring nuggets like that peppered throughout solid research and sound advice, I believe this book would benefit everyone, but especially the more than 18 percent of adults suffering from a full-blown anxiety disorder in any given year according to the National Institute of Mental Health.