Today I have the honor of interviewing Taylor Clark, author of the BRILLIANT book Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Control. It’s amazing material, so I wanted to learn even more.
1. In all your interviews and discussions with brain experts, what study or piece of research about fear was most helpful to you in trying to overcome your own fear?
I actually have two answers to this question — or, rather, one answer and one clarification. I’ll offer the clarification first, because it’s absolutely vital to understanding how to deal productively with our fears: trying to “overcome” anxiety and phobias by doing battle against them just doesn’t work. (Believe me, this is a lesson I had to learn the hard way.) Even though anxiety can be uncomfortable, it’s really not our enemy; its purpose is to help keep us safe, not to ruin our lives.
In fact, one surprising thing I found in writing Nerve is that the biggest difference between our cool-headed heroes and the rest of us isn’t that those people are somehow fearless; it’s that they relate to their fears in a much more harmonious way than others do. In other words, these poised people have learned to work with their fears rather than against them — they don’t get preoccupied with their nerves or struggle to eradicate their anxiety — and this important shift frees them to focus on the moment and perform their best.
When we begin to make friends with fear, our problems with it evaporate. So, as I say in my book, we don’t need to triumph over our fears; we just need to learn how to be afraid.
But to answer the question more directly, I think the most helpful thing I picked up in researching Nerve was seeing just how instrumental a brain region called the amygdala is in our experience of fear and anxiety. The amygdala is the brain’s all-purpose fear control center, like a dedicated security system lodged deep within our minds, and it spends every minute of every day monitoring the world around us for potential threats — even when we’re asleep. It’s like a second brain within the brain.
The important thing for us to understand about the amygdala is that while we often get down on ourselves for feeling anxious or for having “irrational” fears, this small brain region is really the one calling the shots; reason has nothing to do with it. Once we learn about how the amygdala truly works, we can ditch a lot of the negative, self-defeating noise in our heads and get down to the all-important task of approaching our fears in ways that greatly improve the amygdala’s habitual responses.
Luckily, this is something that today’s psychologists know quite a bit about, as I discuss in the book.
2. Since I have to give a talk to a large audience in May, and since you say that our biggest fear is stage fright, can you give us a few simple ways to alleviate performance anxiety?
Well, if I had to narrow down my advice for handling public speaking anxiety to three top tips, they would be these: 1) practice your speech, 2) practice it again, and 3) practice it some more.
Put simply, preparing for a speech through repeated rehearsal, under conditions that are as realistic as possible, is the single best way of ensuring poised performance. Good practice makes it so that when you finally get up there in front of the crowd, your subconscious mind already knows what to do; the situation feels less novel, and more routine.
But practicing isn’t the only productive step you can take, of course. Another helpful bit of preparation for public speaking is to make an effort to shift your negative perceptions about it. One of the most common biases in public performance, for instance, is something called the “illusion of transparency”: our mistaken belief that our nervousness is readily apparent to the audience.
In reality, even a highly anxious speaker’s emotions are far less obvious to a crowd than you might think; the fact that we’re usually hyper-aware of our own nerves magnifies them in our minds. And here’s one more trick that the most elite performers use: expect to be nervous, and try to remember that this feeling is natural and can even be helpful. As any veteran performer can tell you, anxiety provides useful energy that can be channeled to give your performance vigor and vitality.
3. I loved your explanation of the low road and high road of our fear response — involving our lower, primal brain and our more sophisticated high brain. Can you explain this concept more, and discuss the delayed message of the high brain… and how we might delay acting on the messages of the low brain.
If you’ve ever wondered why it is that when you get startled, you react by jumping up in an adrenalized flutter even though you didn’t consciously make that decision, this low/high road divide explains it. As a startling sound (say, the wind slamming a door shut) hits your ear, the audio signal splits off in two directions in your brain. One route zaps the information straight to the amygdala, so it can trigger an immediate self-preserving fight or flight reaction.
At the same time, this audio information is also winding through the more complex channels of the cortex, as your brain computes what’s actually going on. Because this route is more complicated, it takes the conscious mind more time to figure things out—which is why we react to potential danger before we even realize what’s going on. So once again, this is an example of how the subconscious brain is truly in charge of triggering our fear reactions. While we can’t instantly stop ourselves from getting startled or from feeling fear in response to the things that scare us, we do have the power to change how we relate to these emotions, which is all that counts.
The more we learn to welcome our fear and anxiety, work with them, and weave them into the lives we want to lead, the less beholden we are to the whims of the amygdala. And eventually, with enough effort and patience, the conscious mind gains the power to say, “Hey, amygdala, I have this one under control.”