#870 A clear-eyed analysis of fear

Nerve: A Personal Journey Through the Science of Fear
by Eva Holland

Toronto: Penguin Random House (Allen Lane), 2020
$32.95 / 9780735237339

Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski

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Who doesn’t enjoy reading about extraordinary people or extraordinary events? The appeal of reading about the famous or infamous, about divas or dictators is obvious. Equally obvious is the appeal of reading about ordinary folk in extraordinary circumstances, struggling to survive a plane crash in the Andes or discovering a miracle cure for a pandemic. Eva Holland isn’t famous and her recent book isn’t about extraordinary events. Yet Nerve: A Personal Journey Through the Science of Fear makes for a gripping read.

The reasons are many. First, it is deftly written. It is obvious from the get go that the writer is a practised journalist. She knows how to catch interest by plunging into the middle of an anecdote, how to lace generalizations with playful or arresting details; how to toss in rhetorical questions; how to shift her tone from reflective to hard-driving, lively, or self-critically ironic; how to combine intimately personal detail with purely informative historic fact or scientific research.

Eva Holland of Whitehorse. Photo by GBP Creative

In addition — partly because the author has a capacity for clear-eyed analysis, and partly because her own experiences naturally fall into distinct categories — her book progresses through satisfyingly distinct sections. And, even while maintaining this crystal clear framework of topics, the author makes the book an organic whole by interweaving a few moments of acute fear — of being paralyzed with panic on a particular ice climb, for example, or collapsing, frozen with fear, on the viewing platform of the cathedral in Florence.

Something else. Any “personal journey” depends for its impact on the persona that the author creates. If we’re going to spend a lot of time in someone’s head, we may want to like her. And we do. Though Eva Holland spends a lot — a lot — of time completely submerged in her own experiences, thoughts, and feelings, she never comes across as narcissistic, self-indulgent, or self-important. What stands out is a persona (who may well be the author herself, of course) who is sincere, honest, unpretentious, and, most of all, determined to keep perspective on her own suffering.

The one aspect of the persona’s personality that some readers may find least sympathetic — or, for some, most sympathetic! — is her determination to confront one of her fears, of heights (acrophobia), by pushing herself, repeatedly and unnecessarily, into places where many of her readers wouldn’t dream of going. In fact, after confronting and attempting to work through, or even resolve different classes of fear, she concludes the book by forcing herself to take part in an extreme zip-line venture near Moab. “Really?” some might ask. Really?

Eva Holland checks her gear for the Yukon Arctic Ultra 100 Mile race, January 2018. CBC Yukon photo

Apart, though, from reading a book that is well-written and personable, why would anyone want to read a book about fear? The book’s main title, Nerve, is catchy enough, in part because of its many overlapping connotations, some negative, some positive, some even physiological. It is the book’s subtitle, though, that should be the real draw. Claiming to reveal A Personal Journey Through the Science of Fear the book does what it claims to do. More or less. Still, it can be read primarily from four different angles, each suggested by this subtitle, and each making a different appeal, and, possibly, to different kinds of readers.

Eva Holland above the Nahanni River. Photo courtesy of Facebook

It can, therefore, be read first as a personal memoir as we’ve seen, second as a book of popular science, third, as a quest (or “journey”), and, finally, as a self-help book.

As the author of a book about the “science of fear,” Eva Holland makes no attempt to compete with scientists. She points out that scholarly papers and books about fear abound: the history; the anatomy, neurology, and biochemistry; and, finally, the psychology and treatment. In fact, she lists a good range of these in the “Selected Bibliography.” Of most interest to the average reader, though, is an unusual section after the bibliography in which the author reveals the ways in which she used some of these sources, what and how she drew from them.

Not only has Eva Holland clearly researched extensively, but also she has covered the subject from key angles. Starting out with a few touchstones from the Bible and the Greeks, she considers some seminal thoughts from seventeenth century philosopher Descartes, and then, via Pavlov and his famous dog experiments, arrives (a few grins here) at Freud. Switching then to a biological angle, the author gives a clear overview of the brain and some important neurology. Using analogies and direct language, she acknowledges repeatedly that she is working in “highly simplified terms.” Equally important for the reader, though, she keeps her touch light, as, for example, when she writes, “The amygdala can operate without bothering to check in ‘upstairs’ with the cerebral cortex for permission.”

Holland at the Nahanni River

More significant, though, and probably of more general interest, is her own research into and description of her attempts to cure herself. As a result, the book can be read as a kind of quest. Some readers might have a few qualms reading anything (other than a travelogue) that claims to be a “journey.” As a quest, the book comprises a series of encounters, setbacks, and successes. The same kind of readers who enjoy a book that attempts to solve a problem, say, with finding a sunken ship, reducing inner city crime, or tracing ancestral roots, will find the problem-solving sequence of events engaging and satisfying.

As the writer of such a “personal journey,” Holland is in an extremely well qualified position — and for two reasons. Her personal misfortunes are the book’s fortunes. In her own words, “The three main pillars of fear in my life were my seemingly life-long fear of heights; my terror of driving, more recently acquired after a series of car accidents, and the fear we all carry, to one degree or another, of losing the people we love.” And, more to the point, these fall into three distinct categories of fear — phobia, PTSD, and chronic anxiety.

Distinguishing amongst these three kinds of fear, the author searches far and wide to discover the most effective treatments. Ironically, of the three main treatments the author attempts, it is desensitization exposure, the one she cobbles together for herself without professional help, that is the one most widely accepted in the scientific community.

Eva Holland. Photo by GBP Creative

A second treatment, this one for PTSD, called EMDR, though it is widely used, and described by the WHO, is also (according to some sources) far from universally accepted, often criticized, and even, by some, considered “pseudoscience.” The third treatment (again for phobias) is the most problematic. Based mostly in a founding clinic in the Netherlands, and involving treatment with a specific drug during a state of aroused fear, it is, to date, of restricted use. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t go very far in describing either the range of alternate treatments or, more “scientifically,” the data connected with these particular ones. Thus, though the sense of quest is strong, if this were the only book on the “science of fear” and its treatments that readers were ever to read, their knowledge of the subject would probably be, at best, limited.

This is not to say, however, that the book is anything other than honest and frank, and, further, potentially helpful to many readers. As a fourth way of approaching the book, therefore, it can be seen as a kind of self-help book. Although the author doesn’t give a single piece of advice, let alone enumerate 5 steps to this or 14 ways of achieving that, and although she never pretends to do anything other than write about her own very specific fears and phobias, the fact is she does model (without preaching) ways to solve problems and, more problematically, can be seen to suggest that two of her treatments might be effective for anyone with two kinds of acute fear, phobias and PTSD.

Eva Holland. Photo by Carrie McClelland
Eva Holland. Courtesy Facebook

Any reader suffering similar levels of fear as the author, can’t help but be gripped by the fact that, by the book’s end, she thoughtfully and courageously faces and conquers all of her major fears. At the end of the chapter about her partial recovery from her grief at her mother’s early death, she writes, “I started the new year feeling sad but newly empowered. I had faced my worst fear, and I had survived.” Likewise, in the next chapter she describes the morbid terror of driving she developed after a bizarre string of car crashes. Yet, at the end of this chapter, appropriately called “Wrecked,” she writes, “… I got better, I could hardly believe it. Even now sometimes, I feel that old anticipation: I’ll go around a curve on an icy road and brace myself for the terror to rise up inside me and take control. But it never does.” “Impossible as it seems, I was cured.”

And, last, returning to her fear of heights, and undergoing treatment at a clinic in the Netherlands, she discovers that she no longer suffers panic attacks in exposed high places.

Or does she? After a partial return of her fear she writes, “I realized I would have to relearn my own reactions. For so long, I had worked at suppressing and ignoring my fear responses. I had taught myself that they were irrational, not to be trusted. Now, if I was truly cured, I would have to learn to trust them again.”

Holland of the North

It is this last resolution that paves the way for the most subtle and far-reaching part of the book. Yes, each of her three biggest fears, each in a different category, has been neatly dispatched. But the book doesn’t stop there.

While in the last part of the book the author maintains something of her “personal journey,” she does so by stepping outside herself, by thinking about broader issues of fear in others. First, flipping perspectives completely, she considers the possibility that some people, amazingly, seem to experience little to no fear. Ever. And then, changing tacks, she gives some (hair raising!) accounts of social situations where gut-instinct-fear in the face of only intuited danger turns out to be beneficial.

In fact, many readers could well find this part of the book the most thoughtful — and, potentially, the most helpful. No longer looking at particular fears, but, rather, the nature of her connection with it, Holland works, gradually, toward making a “détente” with fear. Achieving something like an epiphany, she comes to understand how much two key elements underlie this détente — control and acceptance. Deciding she can live with the probability that she will have new fears, she also, significantly, understands that she has “new tools.” And, most important, as she says, “I am less afraid of fear itself.”

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Theo Dombrowski

Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Theo is the author and illustrator of popular guide, travel, and hiking books including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island — Volume 1: Victoria to Nanaimo, and Volume 2: Nanaimo North to Strathcona Park (RMB, 2018), reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen in The Ormsby Review no. 384, September 25, 2018. He has written a dozen book reviews for Ormsby, most recently of books by Anosh Irani, Anne Enright, and Esi Edugyan. Theo has also written a Kindle book, When Baby Boomers Retire, and you can learn more about him here. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay.

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