Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool
by Taylor Clark. Little, Brown, 2011
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety disorders now take the top spot, with 18 percent of Americans suffering from one. In his new book Nerve, journalist Taylor Clark begins by highlighting our extreme levels of anxiety, writing that the average high school student today has the same anxiety level as a psychiatric patient did in the 1950s and that Americans are five times as likely to suffer from anxiety as Nigerians, who arguably have more to fear.
Clark does not spend much time speculating on how we became a society awash in worry. He does something perhaps more significant—he clarifies what anxiety is and how we can treat it. There is, Clark says, a “nervous trinity” that can wreak havoc on our minds: anxiety, fear and stress. Fear primarily involves the amygdala, the emotional memory center of the brain. The amygdala evaluates the significance of a potential threat and triggers emotional responses such as freezing or fleeing. Anxiety is more of a cognitive problem, with a locus in the prefrontal cortex—a region of the brain that helps us plan ahead. Anxious people tend to focus on possible future threats, such as “Will I lose my job?” or “Will I get run over by a car?” Stress is harder to pin down but generally signifies the body’s response to feeling overwhelmed and may show up as a range of physical and emotional symptoms, including worry, moodiness, depression or overeating.
Experiencing these feelings can make life miserable, but the good news is it is possible to overcome them. Clark relays the stories of people who have worked to beat their anxious tendencies and discusses techniques readers can use to do the same. For instance, he writes that simply accepting that bad things will happen and facing problems head-on can alleviate anxiety. To this end, Clark quotes philosopher Søren Kierkegaard as saying, “We cannot mature and be fully creative by burying or displacing anxiety, but only by moving through it.”