In Nerve, Eva Holland takes a personal journey inside the science of fear

By Greg Hanlon
May 06, 2020 03:43 PM
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Eva Holland
| Credit: GBP Creative

While descending an ice-covered mountain in northern British Columbia, fear gripped Eva Holland and wouldn’t let go. Her limbs locked up, refusing to budge. Her breath became irregular. Even though she was hiking with a group of people, she resigned herself to the thought that she’d die alone.

Holland had long been inhibited by various fears, but feeling paralyzed on a mountainside — before her friends guided her down — was a different level of harrowing. The experience set Holland on a journey to confront the things that made her afraid, and the result is her debut book, Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear (Experiment), which came out April 14.

Nerve is part memoir and part experimental journalism into the science and psychology of fear. Holland’s engaging, accessible writing brings the science to life, and her sure-footedness when writing about her inner life propels the narrative. She’s a likable protagonist, easy to root for as she tries to make sense of her various fears, which posed an obstacle to her as an outdoorswoman and correspondent for Outside magazine. 

Credit: Courtesy of The Experiment

Holland chronicles her phobias and the traumas that begat them, dating back to her fear of heights that began with a fall atop an escalator when she was a small child. As an adult, three car accidents over a two-year period caused her to be anxious about driving. More globally, for as long as she could remember, she had worried her mom would die before reaching old age — a premonition that came to pass months before she seized up with terror on the mountain.

Consequently, she writes she has “sometimes felt as though my life is less a pursuit of happiness and more an ongoing, endless duel with fear.”

She first tries to tackle her phobia of heights with an extreme type of exposure therapy: skydiving, which she describes as a “blitzkrieg approach.” But the strategy backfires, leaving her traumatized and more afraid than before.

But another treatment works surprisingly well: Pioneered by Dutch psychologist Merel Kindt, the treatment entailed Holland’s being exposed to various exposed heights before taking a pill of the beta-blocker propranolol. 

The method seems straight out of science fiction, but so have many treatments for various phobias, and Holland traces a history of them spanning millennia. The ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates, for instance, theorized in about 400 BCE that fear was caused by an excess of black bile in our brains, which could be purged by taking a poison that induced vomiting and diarrhea. The picture Holland paints of the current research and treatments is more hopeful.

Eva Holland
| Credit: Carrie McClelland

Ultimately, Holland doesn’t conquer her fears so much as achieve a workable peace with them. She writes poignantly about a living American woman known to researchers as Patient S.M., whose amygdala — the part of the brain that processes fear — is essentially deactivated. Without any mechanism to sense danger, S.M.’s life has been marked by abusive relationships and financial problems.

The lesson? Fear is necessary, and to a large extent, Holland’s fears are something she’s grateful for.

“Mine sometimes felt like it was on overdrive,” she writes, “But it was there for a reason: to help me survive.”

Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear (Experiment) went on sale April 14.