The writer Eva Holland had a way of announcing she was moving toward full freakout mode while out climbing and hiking with her friends. She would mutter, “I’m not having fun anymore.” This might be followed by tears, anxious breathing, and, sometimes, freezing in place, which happened during a rock climbing outing in icy northern British Columbia in 2016. On their descent, as darkness approached, fear overwhelmed Holland, and she stopped moving. She only managed to get down when two fellow climbers took her by the arm and moved her step-by-step. Embarrassed and ashamed, Holland cried quietly on the drive home, and then skipped the next day’s hike.
Her low point was also a beginning. That day led her on a journey that became her first book, Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear, released April 14th. Part scientific study and part memoir, it follows Holland’s path to a better place, where she makes peace with her internal terror and still, somehow, keeps moving forward through life.
This journey wasn’t completely by choice. Holland is based in Whitehorse, in the Canadian Yukon. Her magazine assignments often put her in precarious situations, from participating in a Yukon winter ultramarathon to writing beautifully about a couple who decide to die together far from civilization in coastal Alaska. She had to either make peace with fear, or find another line of work. “Giving stuff up felt like a shitty option,” says Holland, Skyping from Whitehorse. “I’m not by any means stubborn enough to just do it on principle.”
Holland’s struggles were both micro and macro: Her fear of heights started with a fall on an airport escalator a young girl, and a more recent driving phobia manifested after three car accidents on unforgiving northern roads. Yet those fears were more like symptoms connected to a root cause. As a girl, Holland lived mostly with her mother, who lost her own mom at an early age. Holland saw the lingering devastation that stained her mother, and became obsessed with the idea that the same fate would fall on her.
Still, it happened. The first line of her book is: “My worst fear came true on a summer evening in July 2015.” While Holland was off the grid on a Canadian canoe trip, her mother suffered a massive stroke. By the time Holland made it to her Ontario bedside, hope was gone, and she died a few days later. For Holland, it left her feeling that you could conjure your worst-case scenario just by thinking about it too much. Shattered, she tried to put her life back together, but found her fears drowning her hopes for the future.
The resulting struggle is at the center of Nerve, as Holland works through a series of attempts to fix herself. An ill-advised skydiving escapade only magnifies her hatred of heights. On a trip to Amsterdam, she takes a beta-blocker before riding in a fire truck’s bucket that shakes and bucks in the wind. There’s therapy and medication. By the end, Holland hasn’t so much conquered her fear as reached an uneasy truce with it that allows her to continue her career as a (mostly) fearless journalist.
In a plague year where our worst fears are real but unseen, possible but indefinable, her book could not be timelier.
I found it interesting that a writer who moved to the Yukon is writing a book on fear, since a lot of your magazine stories take courage to even attempt, much less execute. Did you have any fear about moving to such an unforgiving place?
I wasn’t scared of the winter, having grown up between Saskatoon and Ottawa. I didn’t anticipate how hard the darkness would be. I wasn’t that into outdoors stuff as a kid, and then I got here, and that was what my friends did. I had to either join in and try to keep up, or stay home alone. I was sort of in denial about even the pattern of my fears over the years, until I got to my first full summer here. I had to warn people if we were going on a hike. I had to ask, “Do you know how steep it is? Am I going to cry?”
You participated in a Yukon Ultra Arctic race, which is a 100-mile trek in the dead of winter when there are 18 hours of dark. What is the difference in the fear you have with heights or driving versus the fear you face in a race where competitors lose feet and fingers? In the book, you describe a point in the race where you’re trying to put up your tent and switch your clothes in the dark. That would have scared the shit out of me.
I didn’t have a thermometer, so I didn’t know it was minus-45. But when I couldn’t unfold the tent, I was sort of like, “Oh shit, it’s getting pretty real out here. This is colder than the temperatures I trained in.” And that’s when I did first get frostbite. I was really scared for probably a minute or two just sort of sitting there, frozen. And then I just got in my sleeping bag and was like, ‘Well, you’re not gonna die.” I just sort of talked myself through it and went to bed.
Sure, but as you write in the book, fear isn’t rational. How were you able to deal with the real danger of a solo Arctic night but not able to handle a relatively mild descent while ice climbing with friends in perfect weather?
It goes to show how specific your triggers can be, that I can be calm in a legitimately really dangerous situation that doesn’t happen to be related to my panic mechanism. And then I can completely flip out in a safe situation. It shows how unreliable the mind is. For the race, I had strategized ahead; I had practice putting my tent up without taking my mitts off, all this stuff. And the land was flat, so I was in my wheelhouse [laughs]. But I can panic on a stepladder. With fear you start having an out-of-body experience. You’re no longer in the driver’s seat.
You write that you grew up with the fear you would lose your mother at a young age, like she had lost her mother. Then it happened. How did that translate to your other fears, that the one thing you dreaded the most came true?
After worrying about my mother for so long, it happened, and it felt so inevitable. I think that probably reinforced for me the idea that you can sort of call these things into existence, which isn’t valid but an understandable feeling.
There’s a quote in the book that a definition of fear is the anticipation of pain. Does that get back to your mom as well?
Yeah, it was said by G. Stanley Hall, a 19th century psychologist. It’s the cringe before the blow that’s scary to me. Fear is about imagining worst-case scenarios. I played rugby in high school, and it was always the moment before you got tackled that was the worst. Then you get hit and it’s not that bad, right? There’s this moment of terror, of just anticipation. I spent a lot of time worrying about my mother and about what would happen to me if something happened to her. I was trying to preemptively deal with it. But it did help me, too. It ultimately empowered me and made me feel like I could handle shit. And in the end, that’s what gave me the confidence to try to deal with some of this other stuff, because I knew I was more resilient than I thought.
One of the things you try is what I’d call mainlining your fear. You have a fear of heights, so you go skydiving. It didn’t work. Why?
I hoped on some level that I could force my way through it, and my fear would pop like a bubble. I thought if I did this extreme thing, I could prove myself wrong, and that my fear was irrational. I thought if I could show myself the most extreme version of falling rapidly from heights that maybe I would just get over it.
But it didn’t help me in any way except to show me how real my fear was, and that it was not something I could control. Everybody who has been skydiving told me the best part is when you’re floating down gently under the canopy, blah, blah [laughs]. Right. I never stopped hating it. I was a basket case after landing. I had to wait a long time before I could drive home because my legs were shaking so bad.
But some fear is good, right? You describe a couple of situations where you and some friends were being followed by some creepy guys, and you hightailed it and protected yourself. How do you describe the good kind of fear versus the bad kind?
Those were instances where I think I had a really pure reaction to a genuine threat. It was only after working on the book that I can tell you there’s a qualitative difference between them. In my heights panic, it’s sort of irrational and feels fuzzy and paralyzing, while the others felt really sharp and clear, like it was a drive to action. The times when I’ve been frozen, it hasn’t been an appropriate response to the situation or helpful, so I don’t think of that as a good use of a fight, flight, or freeze response. The times when I ran from these creeps, I felt driven to action in a way that felt clear, decisive, and instinctive.
The writer Orhan Pamuk recently wrote, “Fear, like the thought of dying, makes us feel alone. The recognition that we’re all experiencing a similar anguish draws us out of our loneliness.” Do you agree?
Yes. Shame is inseparable from this stuff, too. If you’re trying to control your reaction, and then you’re wishing you didn’t have it, and you’re trying to hide it from people so they won’t know that you’re freaking out, it just spirals. It becomes kind of an ugly mess. Just being open about it helped. My hiking friends knew that I might lie down on the ground and cry and then get up and keep going. That was great. My panic always got worse if I had an audience that I viewed as maybe unsympathetic or strangers. Mortification just amplifies the fear reaction.
You tried a couple of different therapies for getting over your fears. One was Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy that uses a patient’s rapid eye movements to eventually lessen the impact of traumatic experiences like your fall down the escalator as a child and your car accidents. Was it effective?
I’m not really a therapy person, and I didn’t know what to think of it. But it was amazing. The EMDR procedure consisted of me closing my eyes and holding these kinds of buzzing pods in my hands — they buzzed in an alternating rhythm and prompted my eyes to naturally shift back and forth behind my eyelids. Once I had eyes closed and pods buzzing, the therapist had me tell the story of each incident. After I was through the basic narrative, she would ask me how I was feeling while I talked about it, and we would focus in on any physical responses I had — tightness in my chest, downturned mouth, tears in my eyes, that kind of thing. We kept focusing tighter until the sensation dissolved, and I felt better. Then, eventually, we’d move on to the next incident. I don’t know how to explain it, but the next time I drove on the highway, the flashbacks and paranoia, the visions of my own death in another accident, were gone.
As part of your fear therapy, you took a beta-blocker and then went high up in a fire truck’s bucket in the Netherlands. At first, you seemed disappointed in yourself, because you got scared, but later, you learned it was actually a scary situation, and the wind was too strong to be that high. Do you have to re-wire yourself to know which fear is appropriate and which is not?
It is tough learning to trust your own instincts again after so many years of saying “don’t listen” when I feel afraid. I’m still working on accepting that when I feel afraid now, it’s maybe not excessive or exaggerated. I did this hike a couple years ago with some friends, and we got mixed up and got up really high. We were on these mountain sheep trails to these high, steep slopes, and it was kind of sketchy. I was in holding-back panic mode for hours on end, just putting one foot in front of the other and trying to breathe. And we went through one section that didn’t seem any different to me than anything else we’ve done, and my friend who doesn’t fear heights said, “That was really shady.” To me, it seemed the same as everything else. I had no ability to distinguish between actual danger and my own freak-outs. I’m still a work in progress.
Your fear of heights seems like something you could have just avoided rather than confronted. There’s plenty of flat ground in North America. Did you feel obligated to try and solve it?
Heights panics aside, I love living here. I’ve never felt part of a more supportive community. I like writing the kinds of stories that I write, and there’s a point at which you need to be able to do some stuff in person. So it felt like I either have to give up all this stuff that’s important to me, or I have to figure this out.
The history of dealing with the issue of fear seems like a vast wasteland until recently.
Yeah, it was brutal. My understanding is, even after Vietnam, there was almost nothing they could do for soldiers. It’s really only since, I’d say, the Gulf War that significant headway has been made, and of course the endless Iraq and Afghanistan wars have driven new treatments. But I think we’re just starting to understand trauma. It was just brutal previously; studies that did start to make some headway during the first World War and again in the second World War were buried. They were denied funding. They were buried because militaries didn’t want to acknowledge that this was happening.
You had your first traumatic experience with heights when you were four, and it stuck for years. Childhood experiences linger. Now, we have kids who are dealing with the trauma of social distancing and staying away from their friends. Any advice from your experiences?
We can put it into a couple of categories. There’s obviously the trauma if you see your mom or dad have to be taken to the hospital or something happens to them. Then there is more of a low, consistent level, like kids being stuck at home and hearing about the virus. My understanding is the lasting damage can happen when they witness a big fear spike. You don’t need to hide your fear from them by any stretch; they’re tough and resilient, and they can understand if their parents are tired and worried. It’s when they see a big fear meltdown — in my book it is a kid who sees her mother freak out about a mouse, and that stuck with her. The more that you show that sort of extreme anxiety, the more kids will find that frightening. The more you can cultivate calm in those interactions, the less they’re going to remember this as a scary time and more as a weird time. If they can avoid feeling that “oh my God, my parents are terrified’ feeling, the better. Believe me, I know that is not easy.