Whenever an author is searching for a new book idea, it's usually smart to keep one of the trade's hoariest clichés firmly in mind: Write the book you want to read
. It's tough to go wrong with this tip — unless, of course, you enjoy nothing more than paging through richly detailed, 900-page tomes on the mating patterns of the boll weevil. But when I began working on Nerve
a few years ago, I came to the project with a slightly different aim. I set out to write the book I needed
Like a lot of writers, I've always been a championship-caliber neurotic. If there had been a Talented and Gifted program for worrying when I was a kid, I would've been the prize student; even at four years old, I would anxiously monitor the fuel gauge in the family car, periodically asking my mother if she was absolutely sure we had enough gas to make it home. For most of my life, my innate fretfulness hovered at a sort of intermediate level — present enough to make me worry over nonsense, but not so intense that it caused me any real pain. Yet when I hit my late twenties, fresh off the taxing experience of writing my first book, my anxiety suddenly spiked. Seemingly from nowhere, dread flooded into every crevice of my life. Worries cascaded upon worries, doubts upon doubts. And most troubling of all, the harder I fought to control my anxiety and drive it away, the worse I felt. I didn't understand my own mind.
At the time, this wave of anxiety made me feel as though I was the nation's preeminent head case, but what I was going through is actually quite common. As I pointed out in a recent Slate essay, America has recently transformed into the planet's epicenter of worry: with 18 percent of adults in any given year meeting the conditions for an anxiety disorder (according to the National Institute of Mental Health), the U.S. now ranks as the most anxious nation on earth. This uptick hasn't happened because we live in a riskier world (we're actually far safer than ever before), but because we've somehow lost touch with how to deal with our fears — in exactly the same way that I was experiencing. It didn't take me long to see that my strategies for addressing anxiety, like struggling to eradicate it and avoiding situations that made me nervous, were dismal failures. Yet I also knew that some people, from heroic firefighters to clutch athletes to meditating monks, were masters of handling fear. So what was I doing wrong? What was the secret to dealing well with fear, anxiety, and stress?
When I went hunting for answers amidst the (pandering alert!) well-stocked bookshelves and delightful ambiance of Powell's, I couldn't help but feel dissatisfied with the fear-focused books on the market. Sure, there were dozens of self-help books on anxiety and stress, but they often dispensed vague advice without any scientific backup. Yes, there were highly technical neuroscience tomes, yet it was nearly impossible to pick out the useful bits of information from the thickets of academic jargon. Worst of all were the books that seemed to be designed to torture the anxious; I remember unearthing one aged volume with the ominous title "YOU MUST RELAX" and thinking to myself, or else... die?
To be sure, several bright psychologists have written wonderful, life-changing guides to dealing with anxiety, but I was looking for something broader. I wanted to understand how fear really worked. I wanted to find out what the most brilliant psychologists in the land were discovering about the best ways to approach anxiety. And beyond that, I wanted to learn how cool-headed people in all walks of life — trauma surgeons, stage actors, soldiers, and more — maintained their poise in truly terrifying situations. In short, I wanted the fullest possible picture of fear and cool.
Once I realized that the book I needed didn't yet exist, I felt the electric warmth of a metaphorical light bulb popping on above my head. "Hey," I said to myself, "I don't have anything planned for the next two years and I haven't had nearly enough nervous breakdowns so far in my life — why don't I write this book?" It's this very kind of pathologically foolish thinking that keeps our fine nation's therapists in business.
After all, the funny thing about spending your working hours reading, talking, thinking, and writing about fear is that it doesn't quite transform you into a steely-eyed paragon of cool; mostly, it just heightens your awareness of how extraordinarily neurotic you truly are. (By "you," of course, I mean me.) Reading through a psychology text on how anxiety causes biases and inaccuracies in our thinking, I racked up gruesome tallies: "Yeah, I do that…and that…and a lot of that..." Whereas I began this project silently hoping I'd discover some ancient secret that would instantly make me cool-headed in every conceivable situation, what I found was that my anxious thought patterns and maladaptive habits were deeply ingrained. Take worry, for example. It's wonderful to learn how fretting really works, how the vast majority of the things we worry about never come to pass, and how we usually handle the things we dread just fine when they actually happen — but knowing this stuff doesn't enable you to say, "Awesome, I'll just stop worrying forever now." If only it were that simple.
Yet while I never tracked down the hidden on/off switch for anxiety in my brain, I found something far more valuable in writing Nerve: my efforts to understand fear, anxiety, and stress for what they are eventually led me to appreciate — even to love — my more uncomfortable emotions. Learning the truth about fear and cool was just the first step in a much grander journey. After dealing earnestly with my anxious feelings each and every day, the experience all but forced me to put into practice the single most important finding I came across: the thing that separates cool-headed and poised people from the rest of us isn't the quantity of anxiety they feel, but their relationship with their fears. Either through instinct or hard-won wisdom, these people realize that fear isn't trying to hurt them — it's trying to help them stay safe, succeed, and thrive. Fear, they see, is not our enemy, and it never has to hold us back.
This, above all, is the lesson I've tried to impart in Nerve, because I truly believe — both from comprehensive research and personal experience — that the most vital step we can take to better coexist with our fears and anxieties is to open up and embrace them rather than push them away. You'll never hear me say this is easy to do. It takes patience, work, and, well, guts. But as I learned firsthand, the only way to arrive at a healthy and harmonious relationship with fear is to build it up slowly through openness and effort, just like any other friendship. Even though writing Nerve was tremendously difficult for me, understanding this all-important lesson made every moment of dread and anguish worthwhile.
So in the end, the book I needed to read may have also been the book I needed to write. My greatest hope is that readers like you might find something they need in it as well. And if the material about fear and cool doesn't grab you, I urge you to pick it up for the massive appendix on boll weevil mating. That stuff is fascinating.