Book Review: Nerve, Adventures in the Science of Fear by Eva Holland from 49 Writers’ Katie Bausler

When I heard writer Eva Holland interviewed on public radio about her book Nerve, Adventures in the Science of Fear, I knew I had to read it. Holland lives in Whitehorse, Yukon and is a correspondent for Outside Magazine. In this debut work of nonfiction, Holland unpacks and dissects her debilitating struggle with a wide range of fears, from rock climbing to driving, takes a deep dive in selected research on fear, and describes how through evidence-based therapy, she manages to overcome it.

The book received high reviews and the majority of online readers gave it 5 stars.  A few Good Reads commenters criticized the book for being too heavy on memoir and light on science. I found the opposite. I wanted more personal stories and fewer stories about the research, which was tedious at times for this reader. The book’s release coincided with the first months of the COVID-19 crisis. With the steep rise in the number of people suffering anxiety, the optimism unearthed in Nerve may be helpful in these times.

My own fledgling writing project is sparked by fears of extreme outdoor adventures, exacerbated by my childrens’ painful and traumatic injuries in ski and mountain bike accidents and the deaths of some of their friends and colleagues while adventuring in the wilderness. I hoped Holland’s book, pitched as Mary Roach meets Cheryl Strayed, might shed some light on my big question: is taking risks to feel most alive in the outdoors worth risking your life?

Nerve opens with another kind of fear I did not expect but reflects my personal experience. For Holland’s entire life she feared the death of her mother, to whom she was very close. Holland’s fear materializes when her mother dies of a sudden and severe stroke at 60. For Holland, the profound loss triggers a paralyzing fear of death in relatively mundane situations. My mother lost her mother to breast cancer at the tender age of 13. During my California childhood my mother could become suddenly fearful of unseen “wild animals” on camping or hiking trips for example, and instilled in me and my siblings a strong dose of the fear factor we’ve internalized as adults. Mine comes out with knee-jerk yelling when I get freaked out hiking or skiing out on exposed slopes, where I imagine myself slipping and falling.

Holland’s attempts to cure her fears with sky diving and a “DIY exposure therapy program,” tagging along on rock and ice climbing trips with friends more comfortable with heights are unsuccessful. Then her vehicle rolls over in two successive car accidents on icy Yukon roads. At that point she realizes she is also suffering from PTSD due to car accidents in her past. She seeks out eye movement desensitization and reprocessing treatment (EDMR) and feels, “something palpable shift inside me, like a sprocket turning and locking into place.” She transcends “that sickening sense of fear.” The therapy disconnects the traumatic car accident memories that she associated with driving.

Holland was surprised by how her strong personal experience validated the scientific research. “I had known on some level that my experiences had been physical, of course,” she said in a Q and A for the New York Times. “But I hadn’t thought about that consciously until I understood the science more, and how physical any of our emotions are.”

Buoyed by the success with EDMR, she ends up in Amsterdam, Netherlands, the patient of a doctor who administers a beta blocker that can blot out the conditioned fear response- the voice screaming, “you are going to die” in “perfectly normal situations.” Her therapy involves the administration of one dose of the blood pressure suppressant propranolol and then being exposed to extreme height in a bucket on a fire ladder truck. The combination does its job. Dissipated is the “full body uncontrollable terror” so familiar to Holland for so long.

Mission accomplished? Not exactly. Holland realizes that training her brain to stay calm is a life-long discipline. She comes to this aha moment with a close look at rock star climber Alex Honnold, who famously climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope. Researchers determined his amygdala did not trigger a normal fear response, possibly due to his ability to mentally shut it down, honed by years of intense training and exposure to high risk environments. That section is as close Nerve came to answering my big question about the ultimate cost of risking your life for extreme adventure.

The final chapter, Why Fear Matters, addresses the necessity of fear to protect us from real danger, rapists for example, and why it is valid to heed that intuitive little voice in your head warning impending danger. In the end Holland accepts that she may never feel fully comfortable around steep rock faces and exposed mountain trails. But she is definitely over freezing in her tracks when descending an icy trail. Good news for yellers like me, and my hiking and skiing companions.

Recently, Eva Hollard shared great insights about her new book, Nerve, Adventures in the Science of Fear at this year’s virtual Northwords Writer Symposium. This encouraged Katie Bausler, Board Member and Active Voice producer to provide us with this thoughtful summary.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: Nerve, Adventures in the Science of Fear by Eva Holland from 49 Writers’ Katie Bausler”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Interesting! I’ve been meaning to look up this book ever since hear Holland introduced at North Words. Thanks for the review, Katie.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top