NERVE- Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool

In his new book, Nerve, Taylor Clark draws on cutting-edge science and investigative reporting to explore the very heart of panic and poise, and why some people freeze in critical situations while others keep their heads.  Fear paralyzes even seasoned performers with stage fright, causes us to bomb job interviews, and lose sleep the night before a big presentation. Yet, not everyone cracks under pressure.

With humor and painstaking research, and a lot of case studies, Clark takes a serious look at the psychology of stress.  This book reminds me of another of my favorite books, The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Backer, in that both authors recognize fear as a gift – a necessary survival tool.  Clark says, “Fear is nature’s way of telling us the following: Sorry, but you’re not to be trusted with your own survival. It’s a blunt psychological tool designed to automatically supersede every other bodily function and ensure our continued existence right now.” (p. 25) Clark shows how the folks who stay cool under the most extreme circumstances do so precisely because they are afraid, not because they are placid.

Clark says that anxiety, a uniquely human disorder, often takes the place of fear and actually sabotages our ability to face and quell our fears.  Anxiety, he says, often leads us toward a set of “errors, dead ends, and red herrings :” (p. 59)

  • Seeking unattainable certainty and control.  An essential element in managing anxiety is learning to recognize when when life is uncertain or out of control and accepting that fact instead of fighting it.
  • Worry.  Worrying actually mutes emotional expression, which makes it tougher for us to overcome a fear.
  • Distorted Thinking.  The more anxious you are about something, the more error-prone your predictions about it become.  This can dilute your fearful thinking to where you are afraid of everything, not only of what is really dangerous.
  • Avoiding what scares us.  This is the singe most important error we commit in dealing with fear.  Without exposing ourselves to the things that trigger our fears, we never get a chance to learn that we can cope; avoidance ensures that the fear lives on.

The book is filled with many anecdotes of people overcoming fear–including such diverse areas as sports, public speaking, performance arts, game show pressures, airplane catastrophes, and war.

My favorite story is of Vasily Arkhipov, a soft-spoken, older officer who was chief of staff of the Soviet sub B-59 during the Cuba missile crisis. Unbeknownst to the Americans who were chasing and harassing  the sub off the Florida coast, B-59 carried a torpedo tipped with  a 15-kiloton warhead – the same explosive power that leveled Hiroshima. In the midst of the sub’s captain melting down and the entire crew screaming to “blast them now!,” Arkhipov quietly took the captain aside and convinced him to surface and talk to the American enemy. Incredibly, no one knew of his heroism [he was shamed in his own country for "failing" in the mission] until 1996.  The only person he had told of his heroism was his wife.