Nerves of plastic

Dear colleagues,

Do you ever get nervous or afraid? In urban life, starvation and predators are not serious threats, but there's plenty that can cause people to become anxious, such as speaking to a large audience or negotiating conflicts with friends and family. In the academic environment, sources of anxiety include submitting a thesis (or even just an article) and measuring up to the standard expected by supervisors or peers.

If you're super-cool, nothing bothers you - you can go through life without a worry. Ordinary mortals, however, often obsess about looming challenges, worry about things that hardly ever happen, and freak out over spiders, heights, blood or open spaces. It seems that the world today can be just as terrifying as it was for our ancestors.

Luckily, help is at hand. Researchers have been studying fear, anxiety, worry and other negative mental states. If you have a phobia, it's worth seeing a specialist. Why suffer for decades when training for a few weeks or months can reduce the trauma?

If you'd like to read about the latest scientific findings without ploughing through scientific jargon, get hold of a book by Taylor Clark titled Nerve: poise under pressure, serenity under stress, and the brave new science of fear and cool (Little, Brown, 2011). This is one of the most entertaining popularisations of research I've had the pleasure to read. Indeed, Nerve is a model for how to write an entertaining account of research.

The good news is that being prone to anxiety is only partly genetic, which means there's a lot you can do to become calmer. There are also things you can do to make things worse. Strangely enough, one of them is trying to control everything and to be absolutely sure. For teachers, this mistake might manifest in over-preparation. For research students, it might be trying to read and understand everything before writing a word of the thesis.

Clark lists eight mistakes in dealing with fears. Number 8, he writes, is "the single most important error we commit in dealing with fear, a blunder so egregious that it needs to be set in italics: avoiding the situations that make us anxious " (p. 70). Some perfectionists don't do anything unless it satisfies their unrealistically high standards, which means they continue to be anxious. Gradually increasing exposure to anxiety-producing situations is the way forward, whether they are spiders, submitting papers to journals or facing up to your own (inadequate) prose.

Being calm under pressure doesn't mean fear disappears. Clark says,

"Heroic soldiers, clutch athletes, unflappable pilots, and steady-handed doctors all feel plenty of fear - they just don't see it as something awful. Instead of fighting or avoiding their fears, they tend to concentrate on doing what has to be done. Their relationship with fear isn't adversarial, but accepting." (p. 90)

Clark is quick to say that this approach to fear isn't a cure-all. Indeed, if there were a quick fix for dealing with fear, we would all know about it.

Nerve contains fascinating stories about trauma surgeons, quiz-show champions, athletes, classical musicians and others who perform with poise in horrendously stressful situations - and stories about some whose careers are wrecked by their anxieties. There are many lessons along the way, and Clark conveniently summarises them at the end of the book with 12 tips.

One of the lessons is the importance of training: preparation is highly effective for reducing nerves in stressful situations, whether you're an astronaut or a desk worker. Rehearsing speeches is one example. Another is participating in fire drills. Yet how often do teachers train for dealing with disruptive students, researchers train for handling referees' reports, or staff train for responding to undermining comments? Sometimes small things cause anxiety - so why not practise how to deal with them?

Then there are Clark's other 11 tips. But don't stress - there's no quiz at the end.


Brian Martin
16 July 2012

Acknowledgements Thanks to Trent Brown, Frank Huang and Michael Matteson for helpful feedback on a draft.

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