Taylor Clark, the Portland-based author of Starbucked, is back with his second book, Nerve, and this time around he decided to tackle a different, seemingly unwieldy topic: fear. In this day and age, many people aren’t comfortable honestly talking about this topic in a country so obsessed with happiness and stability. In effect, Taylor has written a self help book for people who hate self help books; he looks into why we have so much trouble with anxiety in our daily lives and offers us explanations from a bevy of psychologists, scientists, and people who have lived through harrowing, near-death experiences. (Check out missionary David Livingstone’s successful attempt at playing dead while in the jaws of a lion on page 28.) Clark recognizes the power of the amygdala over our reactions, but also realizes that preparation is the best way to overcome adversity.
It’s funny, then, that I get so nervous for our interview, and it seems that Clark also was anxious about it. We stopped and started, had awkward pauses as we grasped for words, and fumbled with transitions. Though preparation is key, we found that it can be really difficult talking about anxiety without ourselves feeling some unease.
How did you get started with this book?
I just as a person have a real hatred of BS, and I won’t name any names, but if you go into the self help area of the bookstore and look at how people tell you how to deal with anxiety and stress, generally they don’t have a real thorough understanding of how that works in the brain. I always found that unsatisfying. People can tell people you need to face their fears, but until you tell someone why, as in what’s going on in their heads, that advice isn’t effective.
The point of the book for me, the overarching theme, is that anxiety and fear and stress are not things that are enemies — the way to deal with them is to learn to embrace them rather than push them away. There’s a certain level at which I try not to be antagonistic toward my emotions. There are plenty of habits I have that will make me worry pointlessly, but there’s a line. For instance, one of the first things that doctors say when people are anxious is to stop drinking coffee which I think is insane advice. A cup of coffee a day is not a bad thing at all.
How do you personally deal with anxiety?
The funny thing about my personalty type is that I’m more prone to worry about pointless things than I am worry about big things. For instance, I can worry for days about some little social thing, but I can also stand on a cliff and look down, so the normal fear pattern is inverted.
Each of us have our own individual unique fears. I don’t think two people are every really the same in how they express fear. There are plenty of people who are neurotic Woody Allen-types and they are fine in emergencies. It’s a very rich and complicated formula inside of us.
What is it about living in the US right now that makes us so stressed? Do you think that we’re unable to act unhappy as Americans?
Part of the reason we are so much more anxious over time is because of a lot of different factors, like the fact that we work more or that the political situation gets increasingly more acrimonious. There’s all these things people think about, like health care, but there’s also the factors I talk about in the Slate piece and in the book, like the decline of social connections, plus the alarmist information we receive.
Especially with men there’s still a real stigma to admitting you have a problem or weakness. This is a problem I actually struggled with for a long time, I think if you told me I would openly be talking about these things four years ago I would be in disbelief. I would hide things from people because I would need to look like I had everything together. When people try to stifle their emotions they make them a lot worse. It’s good to see that things are changing a bit, and hopefully they’ll move in a good direction.
Why are antidepressant commercials so bad, and why are fire drills actually useful?
The one that cracks me up is that antidepressant that you take if you’re current antidepressant isn’t working. And some people do need this help, but this commercial is not for those people. This commercial is for people that just want things to be fixed by a pill. Of course you’re having these symptoms, you’re already taking the pills! (i.e., “You don’t need to feel any bad feelings, just take this pill.”)
You have to take a role in your own mental health and mental well being. It’s pretty clear with fear in particular, if you bury it it will just come back. There’s no such thing as a quick fix, you really do need to experience things. If you’re afraid of something and you expose yourself to it and over time your brain comes to see that you can handle it. That’s why we do fire drills, which seem completely pointless and yet if an actual fire happens you’ll be thankful. What this training does is lays the groundwork in your brain so when a disaster happens you can deal with it. Thinking takes time, so if the right answers are in your subconscious mind you can react right away.
Did writing this book cause you anxiety?
If you spend eight hours a day for two years [thinking about anxiety] when it’s already something you have trouble with, it’s not something that’s easy to do. A lot of the mistakes in the book that I point to — I’ve done all of those. But the reason the book has been a good experience despite being hard, is that I’ve kept at it. I kept trying to do the right thing in life, which is all that you can really do. Eventually you internalize that you can deal with things and that’s important. Even if it doesn’t feel great and you’re kind of miserable, you realize it won’t kill you and you can deal with it.