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13 May 2020

Why we should not fight our fears

A timely memoir investigates the benefits of being afraid.

By Sophie McBain

In July 2015, the journalist Eva Holland’s worst fear came true. She was on a canoeing trip in a remote part of Canada and had returned to her campsite one evening to find a note left for her, telling her to phone her cousin right away. Her mother had  collapsed with a stroke; she was unlikely to regain consciousness. Holland’s mother died a few days later.

Holland was very close to her mother; they spoke on the phone four or five times a week. But she had also always feared becoming motherless because her mother had never fully recovered from the death of her own parents, and Holland had been witness to her lifelong grief. Holland felt certain that if she lost her mother, she too would be  irreparably broken.

But she wasn’t. After the dark months that followed her mother’s death, Holland came to understand that she would be OK. Her life would always be a bit sadder, but she could cope. Having survived this, she began to wonder: could she face down her other fears? And what would it mean to live with less fear? Holland’s first book, Nerve, is a lucid, affecting account of this personal quest, interwoven with an exploration of the fascinating science of fear.

“I’ve sometimes felt as though my life is less a pursuit of happiness and more an ongoing, endless duel with fear,” Holland writes. As a child, she never ran as fast as she could in the playground because she feared losing control. She chafes at the idea that as an adult her fears are still holding her back; she wants to overcome her fear of heights and her fear of driving – the result of suffering four car accidents. Nerve sometimes feels less a book about fear than one about courage.

The first thing Holland did to try to overcome her fear of heights was skydive. As someone who shares this phobia, I cannot conceive of circumstances under which I would voluntarily jump out of a plane. This rash initial experiment was a failure: she hated every second of her fall and concluded that even if she became better at forcing herself into situations that terrify her, she wouldn’t have solved her problem. Ultimately, she wants to be able to scale heights and drive on icy roads without feeling afraid. The therapy and experimental phobia treatments she tried next are all intriguing, but more interesting are the philosophical questions she grapples with. After all, fear isn’t always a bad thing, it also helps us avoid danger. Sometimes fear may hold us back, but at other times it helps us tap into a resolve and strength we didn’t even know we possessed. Maybe instead of hoping to be liberated from fear, the challenge of living well is to know when to embrace and listen to our fear, and when to fight it.

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In his 1997 book, The Gift of Fear, the security consultant Gavin de Becker argues that people need to relearn how to trust their gut. De Becker believes that we have a keen ability to sense danger, but that too often we don’t act on our instincts for fear of being rude or breaking social norms. Holland notes that in the decades since The Gift of Fear was published, science has started to reveal some of the mechanisms that could explain what de Becker describes as intuition. For instance, studies have shown that people are able to smell fear: we can distinguish between sweat produced by someone who is afraid and someone who is not, and the former primes a fear response in us, too. 

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In his book, de Becker tells the story of a man who walked into a shop planning to buy some magazines but left abruptly, without buying anything, because he experienced a terrible sense of foreboding. The next man who stepped into the shop was shot dead; he had interrupted an armed robbery. At first the man explained to de Becker that he’d just had a “gut feeling” something was off, but then he corrected himself. On reflection, a few things had struck the man as weird: the way the shop assistant had kept his eyes on the other customer when he entered, the customer’s inappropriately large, warm jacket. We are more observant than we think we are, de Becker argues. “Intuition is soaring flight compared to the plodding of logic,” he writes. It’s certainly a comforting thought.

I felt an icy chill reading about one of Holland’s friends who cycled away at high speed from a man who had stopped to ask her for directions and then gave her the creeps by following her. “I’m sorry, you just scared me!” she shouted once she’d reached a safe distance. Later that day, the man murdered a woman he met on the same bike path. I thought of the times I have felt suddenly scared of a strange man and have found a way to escape fast, by changing train carriages or ducking into a shop or simply running away. We can so rarely measure whether our intuitions are accurate: were these overreactions or near-misses? Did the girl who was killed on the bike path sense the danger beforehand too, or did she walk blithely into her murderer’s trap?

I tried to make sense of occasions when I, someone who is naturally anxious and fearful, have been in objectively dangerous situations and have felt curiously un-afraid. When I was in my early twenties, a taxi driver in Libya held a knife to my neck, and what confused me later was how calm I was, how certain that I would make it out of the taxi unharmed. Had I correctly intuited that he merely wanted to scare  me, or was I young and stupid enough to feel invulnerable?

I thought then about how many experts I heard warning about the approaching coronavirus pandemic and how I didn’t feel afraid until it was far too late to mitigate the threat – until I was already living through the biggest public health crisis of my lifetime. In Nerve, the neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein raises the thought-provoking idea that our fear responses may no longer be useful for understanding modern society. Perhaps this explains why although most people alive today are safer and more secure than their ancestors ever could have hoped to be, anxiety disorders are sky- rocketing. Our fear responses may be  becoming maladaptive, Feinstein suggests, an idea I would have loved Holland to  explore in greater depth.

Holland is an observant, entertaining, honest guide, and reading Nerve I found a new way to think about and understand my own fears: the ones so deep that I cannot even commit them to writing, my embarrassing and inexplicable phobia of birds, the new and specific fears I have for my loved ones as we struggle through this pandemic, and the drip-drip of anxiety that mounts with every day of bad news. Holland makes progress in overcoming her fear of heights and of driving, but more significant is her changing relationship with fear. Learning more about it has made her less afraid of fear itself – and perhaps that’s something we might all hope for. 

Nerve: A Personal Journey Through the Science of Fear 
Eva Holland
Allen Lane, 288pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion