Nerves make us bomb job interviews, first dates, and SATs. With a presentation looming at work, fear robs us of sleep for days. It paralyzes seasoned concert musicians and freezes rookie cops in tight situations. And yet not everyone cracks. Soldiers keep their heads in combat; firemen rush into burning buildings; unflappable trauma doctors juggle patient after patient. It’s not that these people feel no fear; often, in fact, they’re riddled with it.
In Nerve, Taylor Clark draws upon cutting-edge science and painstaking reporting to explore the very heart of panic and poise. Using a wide range of case studies, Clark overturns the popular myths about anxiety and fear to explain why some people thrive under pressure, while others falter-and how we can go forward with steadier nerves and increased confidence.
“Our fears are faster than our thoughts.” (38)
“We might wish our higher cognitive machinery could keep up with the amygdala, but evolution, in its savage wisdom, knows that it’s better to go through a thousand false alarms than to risk failing to react to a real danger just once.”
The amygdala has a greater ability to supersede the conscious mind than vice versa – “our brains are actually designed to thwart our efforts to override the fear response.” (40)
“So in the same way that your computer’s antivirus program compares each file on your hard drive with its data bank of malicious software, your amygdala scans all incoming stimuli against a memory bank of threats. If it gets a close enough match (say, a scurrying. Lack critter), it fires up a fear reaction (‘Spider alert!’). Memory, then, is an essential ingredient in fear.” (43)
The process of learning to fear something is imprecise, but the neural connections and imprints it makes are strong and almost impossible to undo completely.
“Faced with a vague physical sensation, the hypochondriac dwells not in the probability that it’s benign, but in the possibility, however slim, that it heralds something catastrophic.” (54)
“An estimated 5 percent of all visits to primary care doctors in the United Stares stem from hypochondria, at an annual cost of $20 billion to the health care system.” (55)
“Fear is primarily physiological, yet anxiety is predominantly cognitive: fear supercharges the body to escape real danger right now, and anxiety motivates the brain to figure out how to avoid theoretical danger in the future.” (58)
“People who can’t stand uncertainty interpret ambiguous information not as vague or neutral, but as threatening.” (62)
“(A) lack of negative outcomes reinfoces the worry habit. Because feared events almost never follow worry, we start subconsciously believing that worry prevents such things from happening.” (64)
Our prefrontal cortex distinguishes us from other species; only we can plan ahead for potential threats in the future. But Joseph LeDoux explains the downside of this: “Bigger brains allow better plans, but for these you pay in the currency of anxiety.” (70)
“If fear is like a living organism in the mind, avoidance is its primary means of self-preservation. Without exposing ourselves to the things that trigger our fears, we never get a chance to learn that we can cope, or that our catastrophic worries are wrong, or that the things we fret really aren’t going to tear us limb from limb. Avoidance ensures that the fear lives on.” (71)
(Arguing against brute force struggles with fear) “Fear and anxiety are a great, rushing river upon which we float in our bobbing little kayaks. We can paddle furiously against the stream in a futile struggle to get upriver and avoid the rapids, or we can work with the current and use our energy to navigate the challenges ahead. The choice is always ours.” (72)
“To get over a fear, you have to expose yourself to it, and you have to feel afraid.” (75) -then it will naturally pass and you’ll learn that you can handle it
“More conventional therapies attempt to help patients relax, but (Boston University’s David Barlow) contends that focusing on becoming calm can send a false message that fear is dangerous. ‘There’s a place for relaxation,’ explained Craske, a Barlow collaborator, ‘but if the crux of the problem is that a person is afraid of feeling fear, then too much focus on relaxation simply feeds that fear.’” (76)
“(UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman) believes (that) mindful noting – the simple act of putting our feeling into words – helps the brain disambiguate our emotions and provide a level of detachment from them.” (82)
Once ironworkers tie off ther ropes and their harness is set, they like to lean back into the harness instead of clinging next to the column they’re suspended near. They understand that you have to trust the equipment. It reflects back to them that everything’s working.
(An ironworker’s description of this process) “You tie off. You lean back into it. You don’t fall. Okay.” (90)