Fear has shadowed humans since the dawn of time. A natural response to threats, it has been triggered by everything from phobias of snakes to the terror of nuclear armament. Right now, the new coronavirus pandemic is perhaps the biggest accelerator of anxieties. Eva Holland, the author of Nerve: A Personal Journey through the Science of Fear, shows how the survival mechanism works on the mind and body by exploring her own fears, the worst of which was losing her mother, followed by a debilitating phobia of heights and trauma-induced fears of driving cars. As she was setting up virtual book-tour events, in keeping with social distancing rules, she took the time to speak with The Globe and Mail about deconstructing and rebuilding her relationship with fear – and how that has helped her deal with the current pandemic.
Your book has been described as courageous, yet you describe yourself as “a deeply fearful person.” What’s the verdict after writing Nerve: brave, or scaredy-cat?
I don’t feel brave most of the time, but I guess there’s bravery in tackling your scaredy-cat-ness head on – bravery within fear.
Fear is such a universal feeling. Why are we so reluctant to talk about what scares us?
Culturally, we treat fear as a weakness. Suck it up, keep calm and carry on, all that stuff, and so it’s something people are sensitive to show about themselves. It feels embarrassing.
So how did you muster the courage to expose your fears and vulnerabilities?
It felt necessary. With [my fear of] heights, I could avoid the issue or muscle through the occasional freak-outs. But when things got to the point where I put myself in danger [on a hike in the mountains] and when it started affecting my driving, the fear became incapacitating; it was impacting my work and life. [Writing the book] didn’t feel like courage; I was backed into a corner and had to do something.
What was the scariest thing writing this book?
Deciding how much to say about my mom and our relationship and how she died, and worrying that maybe other members of the family would feel that I had intruded on our privacy too much or put too much out there in public.
Nerve is part memoir and part scientific investigation. How did you strike a balance between the two?
Fear is such an individual experience; even though we all experience it, it’s something that happens inside our heads. It was hard to know if people would relate to my experiences or if they would think, “Wow, she’s a real scaredy-cat.” How could I write this in a way that people would understand the circumstances of what made me afraid and my reactions to them? I thought about analogies that would bridge my experiences with the science. Other than the epilogue, there is no section in the book that wasn’t read by at least one other person before I sent it to my book editors. I leaned heavily on friends to test drive the material.
What did you learn about your own fears listening to friends and others talking about theirs?
It made me feel less alone. I had been suffering with this stuff for so long and felt pretty embarrassed and ashamed about it; sometimes, it felt humiliating, as I say in the book. To have other people tell me about their fears made me feel less self-conscious about the whole project. It made it easier to write the book knowing I was not alone.
What has been the biggest takeaway for how you live today and how you manage anxieties around the COVID-19 pandemic?
I started out with this notion of conquest, that I was going to conquer and overcome my fears. By the end, I had gained an understanding of fear as something necessary and natural. That helps me now in this pandemic situation, to know that it’s not shameful to be afraid, it’s not cowardice. That helps me through these days of isolation. When I feel afraid, I can say, this is my body reacting to a threat. There’s nothing wrong with this. Allowing yourself to be afraid while remaining calm – not giving in to panic but accepting the emotion you’re feeling – has been helpful for me.
You write, “Without fear, there was so much room in my mind.” Can you elaborate?
Because fear is there to help us survive, it’s such a demanding emotion. I experienced it as taking up space in my head; when it wasn’t there, there was so much more room for good thoughts and complicated thoughts and silly things like vanity and self-consciousness. All of that disappears when you're afraid, including the pettiness and the silliness. You can almost enjoy those when you think, “Oh I get this back when I’m not scared.”
That seems like a good way to approach the current times, too.
Yes, if people can find moments of appreciation even for small, silly things, that’s great, things that you couldn’t focus on if you were too scared. When the fear recedes for a few minutes and you notice the little things, even things that might irritate you, there’s pleasure in being irritated instead of terrified.
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