Anxiety has been a part of my life since Kindergarten. It got in the way of being a Trekkie. But then Star Trek helped me find a way to face my fears. Thank you to The Story Collider for helping me to tell this story.
For more about my brother, read my original stories:
Doctor Who just started series eight (“season eight” for the yanks) with a newly regenerated Twelfth Doctor played by Peter Capaldi. We’re a few episodes in and so far it’s been a bumpy ride. My favorite Doctor Who stories are about “the victory of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”, stuff that makes you think or gives you something to aspire to. I haven’t seen much of that yet. But this week’s episode, “Listen”, got very close. The Doctor did in seconds what I spend hours doing with my patients — teaching people that anxiety isn’t something to fear, it’s rocket fuel.
No spoilers ahead, just psychological analysis.
“Let me tell you about scared...”
I’ll skip all the timey wimey plot details. Basically, The Doctor is investigating invisible monsters, the kind kids worry might be under their beds at night. Midway through the episode, The Doctor finds a young boy who’s just come face to face with such a monster. The boy’s obviously afraid. This is what The Doctor says:
Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. Right now you could run faster and you can fight harder. You can jump higher than ever in your life and you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower! Your superpower! There is danger in this room. And guess what? It’s you.
With this new way perspective, the boy is able to get through the situation, despite his terror.
Some have called this the “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” Doctor Who episode. But that’s not entirely correct — The Doctor tells us we don’t have to fear fear itself, we need to feel it.
As someone who’s spent their career studying anxiety and its treatment, I can tell you The Doctor is totally right.
Anxiety is Rocket Fuel
Emotions quickly communicate information. Sadness means a loss has occurred (your best friend moved away). Anger tells us we’ve been wronged (someone at work ate your leftovers without asking). Laughter lets people know that even though a social norm has been broken, things are okay (a friend walks, almost falls, but catches their balance right at the end). What about fear? It prepares us for danger.
When we feel the presence of something scary, our bodies turn on the fight or flight response. Its job is to gets us ready to battle nearby dangers, support people who need help, or escape to safety as quickly as possible. That’s why your heart beats faster, you breathe more quickly, your muscles get tense, and you start to sweat. All of these changes are the “rocket fuel” The Doctor spoke of, the things that help us run faster, jump higher, and fight harder.
Anxiety also warps your psychology. Your mind exaggerates details (making a scary dog look larger than it is), imagines the worst-case scenario (the dog is going to bite you and you’ll die), and forces you to ignore everything but the thing that scares you (you don’t see the dog is securely held by a leash).
In the short term, all of this is a very good thing and protects us from predators (lions) and dangerous situations (walking across a rickety old bridge). A normal amount of stress also helps us get things done, whether it’s studying for a test or paying the bills. Stress, fear, and anxiety are our companions. Without them, our species wouldn’t have survived for very long.
Research now indicates that stress is more than a survival mechanism. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how stress also makes it easier to get support from friends and family in her fantastic TED talk. Here’s an excerpt:
[Oxytocin] is a stress hormone. It's as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.
You Can’t Avoid Rocket Fuel, Better to Ride It Out
If stress, fear, and anxiety are normal and helpful parts of the human experience, than why are anxiety disorders one of the most common mental health problems impacting children, teenagers, and adults?
Some people are more sensitive to anxiety. All those physical and mental changes we talked about, the stuff that comes along with the rocket fuel, those sensations are stronger in people who have a vulnerability to anxiety. Others have gone through difficult experiences — maybe they were bullied, saw a traumatic event where someone’s life was in danger, or were in a situation that went drastically wrong. There’s also the possibility that someone might not know what to do when they’re anxious and feel out of control when fight or flight is triggered.
When anxiety limits what you can do in your life, or makes everyday activities painful, that’s when you’ve got an anxiety disorder. Most people with anxiety disorders cope by avoiding situations that cause them distress (like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3). But there’s no way to completely avoid anxiety, it’s a normal everyday human emotion. Avoiding situations increases anxiety sensitivity, making the problem a lot worse in the long-term. What’s the solution? Experience the anxiety and ride it out.
This type of treatment is called exposure therapy. It’s based on the biological process of habituation, how humans get used to things that stay the same. Think about the last time you jumped in a pool. The water felt cold at first, right? But the longer you stayed in, the warmer the water felt. The actual temperature never changed but because you stayed in the situation your body got used to it. We use this same process in cognitive behavioral therapy to help people become comfortable with anxiety, accept anxious thoughts, and face anxious situations. It's the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders.
That’s why I love this week’s Doctor Who — it reminds us that everyone, including Time Lords, get anxious and that’s totally normal. In fact, it’s pretty cool and super helpful.
The story of Brain Knows Better begins on October 12, 2012. My friend from UCLA , Andrea Letamendi, just spoke at New York Comic Con about the psychology of cosplay and a few hours later we were discussing it over lunch.
“It was really cool to see you in action. Being such a hardcore geek on stage and backing up what you were saying with science,” I said. “But aren’t you afraid of what people in the field are going to think?”
Back in our college days, Andrea and I spent a lot of time reminiscing about Street Fighter 2 and Batman: The Animated Series. When we got to grad school, we both hid our geeky interests the way you might hide a tattoo on the first day of a new job. Seeing Andrea now, integrating all of the things she loved, was inspiring. And intimidating.
“You know, if I were still in school and constantly under scrutiny, I wouldn’t be so public about this other side of my life. But honestly, nothing bad has happened. It’s actually at comic cons where I feel like my life makes the most sense. It’s where I get to be a geek and a psychologist.”
I told Andrea that if I had her confidence, I would talk about how Star Trek influenced my life and how it led me to become a psychologist.
“You need to share your story. It’s about what can happen if you follow your passions. It would resonate with a lot of people.”
I took Andrea’s advice, wrote Growing Up Trekkie, and emailed it to my friend Lowen Baumgarten (you know, the guy who later wrote the most controversial article on this site). He liked it and thought it would be cool to base a blog on the story. We spent some time mining my favorite music to get inspiration for a title and that’s how Brain Knows Better was born.
I shared my story on Facebook. My friends were really encouraging. Even people who hated science fiction liked Growing Up Trekkie. That felt awesome and made me want to write more.
My second article got fewer likes. I tried again. Even fewer people read my third article. The trend continued. Even though I spent hours developing each article, it didn’t seem like anyone wanted to read my work. I didn’t write anything in December. It just didn’t feel worth the time that went in to develop each post.
Lowen had some extra frequent flier miles he needed to use up and made a last minute trip to New York to hang out. I took the opportunity to vent.
“I’m thinking of pulling the plug on Brain Knows Better. The blog hasn’t gone anywhere and I have no clue why.”
“Yeah, let’s talk about that…”
I could tell Lowen also had something he needed to get off his chest.
“Your first story was great but everything after has been soooooo academic. Look at this.” He grabbed my laptop and pulled up my most recent article. “’Ridley’s Scott’s Prometheus and the Fallacy of Origins’ – I have no idea what that means and I don’t want to find out. What happened to your story? I don’t hear your voice anymore.”
Lowen was right. Brain Knows Better was boring. I thought back to Andrea’s panel and how honest she was about her own cosplay. That’s what made the talk awesome – her story combined with real research.
I rebooted everything in 2013 and launched with a story about how Firefly helped me understand the culture clash of my childhood. Overnight it became my most popular article and led to some cool conversations about multiculturalism (and Captain Tight Pants). The more I opened up, the more my work resonated with others.
My audience started to grow, as did my confidence as a writer. I wanted to do more, so I messaged Andrea with an idea I had for a comic con panel we could do together about the psychology of Star Trek versus Star Wars. She loved it, and it was picked up for both WonderCon and San Diego Comic Con. Comic Con fast tracked everything. It helped me make new geek friends, like Star Trek experts Larry Nemecek and John Champion. Somewhere along the way I was nicknamed “the science fiction psychologist”.
But something didn’t feel right. The more I talked about my passions, the more I kept remembering my brother, Salman. He was a big part of my geek origin story. When he committed suicide in 2008, I buried my memories of him – it was the only way I was able to move on. Now that I was talking about being a geek publically, I was also beginning to feel like I was losing control of my emotions. This happened a lot at cons, especially when people asked me about my family. All that raw pain, guilt, and shame started resurfacing against my will.
Being honest as a writer had helped me up to now so it made sense to write about my current struggle dealing with my brother’s death. So that’s what I did. The first time I sat down to write a few paragraphs I cried. A lot. It ended up taking a month to get out, but the more I wrote the less raw it felt.
The response to this story was overwhelming. I’ve heard from over 3,000 people (I save every response) who also struggled with mental health, some who were mourning loved ones and others who also felt the stigma of suicide.
Everything changed after that. It felt like someone flipped a switch and I was able to talk about Salman like I used to when he was alive. I started a new job in the fall and everyone already knows about my brother and the impact he had on my life.
Salman has been with me ever since that story went live. He was with me while I read Ready Player One, explaining all the references to 80s culture that I missed. I imagined that we debated which next-generation system to get, the Xbox One or the PS4 – there would've been endless feuds about which one is better. And in that parallel universe, we had a massive discussion about Spike Jonze's Her. As a computer scientist working in speech recognition, he would have loved seeing the promise of his work realized in the film.
I used to worry a lot about what people thought of me. I avoided any public displays of geekiness because I didn’t want people to think I was weird. That’s also why I shut down every thought I had about my brother – no one could see me lose control of my emotions. This kept me safe. But as I started opening up about whom I really was, I met a great group of people who shared my passions and struggles. Playing it safe just isn’t worth the cost of feeling alone anymore.
This past year was the most honest of my life. Everything that was good came from writing truthfully and connecting with people like you. Thank you for making 2013 so awesome.
I recently caught up with a Trekkie friend of mine. He's a psychiatrist and I'm a psychologist, so of course we did a deep dive into the psyche of the latest film — Star Trek Into Darkness. Our conversation kept coming back to Spock.
"He's the most important character in the Star Trek universe," Dr. T said. "Spock has wielded more influence on the alpha quadrant than anyone else."
I never thought about Spock like that before, but Dr. T was right—he is the only character who's made an appearance in every era of Star Trek including The Original Series, The Next Generation, and J.J. Abrams’s new parallel universe.
"Why is Spock such an enduring character?" I asked. "What makes him so unique?"
Dr. T and I spent the rest of the night trying to understand Spock. After a small detour debating who would win an “Amok Time” fight — Leonard Nimoy or Zachary Quinto, we eventually decided that Spock's teaches us that the things that make us different, strange, and weird are the same things that make us awesome.
This is not only an expansion on my conversation with Dr. T., but an attempt to summarize 47 years of canon and 2 parallel universes into 1 comprehensive conceptualization of a character. I present to you the psychology of Spock — past, present, and future.
Who we are is the result of our biology, psychology, and experiences. So let's start our conceptualization of Spock by exploring his unique biology.
Spock is half human and half Vulcan. While we can't begin to imagine how the biology of an interspecies human would work, we can extrapolate based on what we've seen in Star Trek and know about science.
- Spock is genetically diverse, making him more adaptive to new environments and less susceptible to genetic diseases (like his father's dementia).
- Since Vulcans evolved in a harsher environment, Spock is stronger than humans.
- Vulcans are touch telepaths, giving Spock the ability to share thoughts through a mind-meld.
- Vulcans experience powerful emotions, making Spock more vulnerable to very intense feelings.
The last point is key to understanding Spock's psychology. Here's how Spock's father describes Vulcan emotions in 2009’s Star Trek:
Sarek: "Emotions run deep within our race. In many ways more deeply than in humans. Logic offers a serenity humans seldom experience. The control of feelings so that they do not control you."
Since Spock has a nervous system that experiences powerful emotions (I.E. a very fast limbic system), he can make decisions very quickly. What about his human biology? The following conversation from Star Trek: Enterprise helps us understand the difference between humans and Vulcans:
Soval: We don't know what to do about Humans. Of all the species we've made contact with, yours is the only one we can't define. You have the arrogance of Andorians, the stubborn pride of Tellarites. One moment, you're as driven by your emotions as Klingons, and the next, you confound us by suddenly embracing logic.
Forrest: I'm sure those qualities are found in every species.
Soval: Not in such confusing abundance.
We humans are very flexible in our thinking — which explains why we can be so erratic and unpredictable. This is due to our prefrontal cortex, the region that coordinates our thoughts and decides what to do. It's also the area responsible for regulating our feelings. Because humans can entertain many different ideas at once, sometimes we’re logical while at other times we’re deeply emotional.
This is why Spock’s brain is so unique — he's got the flexibility of a human mind combined with the strength of Vulcan emotions. Yes, his human side might make it more difficult for him to control his Vulcan feelings, but the integration of the two gives him the opportunity to quickly think in very creative ways.
"A Child of Two Worlds"
The central psychological experience of Spock's childhood is growing up in a bicultural home. Not only is he a minority on Vulcan, he might be the only human/Vulcan child ON THE WHOLE PLANET!
The major challenge for bicultural children is to integrate their two cultures. People who are able to do this usually feel proud about being unique. Others find their cultures to be in conflict with each other and feel pressure to choose one over another. Psychologists call this the Bicultural Identity Integration construct. Kids who are able to integrate their cultures become very good at cultural frame-switching — being able to think, act, and feel like a human on Earth and a Vulcan on Vulcan. Kids who can't integrate their cultures don't have this flexibility and have more rigid personalities.
This is one of the reasons I love 2009's Star Trek so much—Spock's struggle to figure out his identity is beautifully portrayed. In a pivotal scene, a group of Vulcan boys bully Spock for being half human and push him hoping it will make him mad. Since showing strong emotions is a big taboo in Vulcan culture, this situation created a lot of anxiety for Spock because he was afraid of confirming a stereotype (that he can’t control his emotions). That’s stereotype threat in action—anytime we worry about fulfilling a stereotype we usually preform worse. In Spock's case, stereotype threat contributed to him losing his cool and beating the crap out of a kid (who totally deserved it by the way).
Situations like that caused a lot of identity conflict for Spock. Look closely at the conversations he had with his father and mother after the fight:
Spock: You suggest that I should be completely Vulcan…?
Sarek: …Spock, you are fully capable of deciding your own destiny. The question you face is: which path will you choose? This is something only you can decide.
Spock: Should I choose to complete the Vulcan discipline of Kolinahr and purge all emotion, I trust you will not feel it reflects judgment on you.
Amanda: Oh, Spock. As always, whatever you choose to be, you will have a proud mother.
In both conversations we can feel the tension between Spock's Vulcan and human identities. It's clear that Spock was questioning who he is and who he wanted to become (“Should I complete Kolinahr?”). Rather than guiding Spock down one path or another, both of his parents encouraged him to make his own decisions. By allowing him to independently explore his identity they increased the chances of Spock integrating both cultures. This type of parenting is a core component in resilience — the psychological factor that keeps kids healthy despite chronic stressors (like constant discrimination for being a “green-blooded hobgoblin”).
"I Choose Not to Feel"
One of the key changes in the new Star Trek parallel universe is the destruction of Vulcan. Not only did Zachary Quinto’s Spock witness this trauma firsthand, he also lost his mother in the process.
After this terrorist attack, the Spock of the present was overwhelmed by powerful emotions. In response to his sadness and rage, Spock’s primary strategy became numbing himself to his feelings. After James Kirk ridiculed Spock for "feeling nothing" (another stereotype threat, “Vulcans have no emotions”), Spock attacked Kirk. After almost killing Kirk, Spock gave up his command of the Enterprise because he was "emotionally compromised".
Trying to numb powerful feelings and having uncontrollable emotional outbursts are common experiences after trauma. What becomes problematic is if such patterns continue long after a trauma has passed. This is exactly what happened to Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness. The events of Into Darkness take place about a year after the destruction of Vulcan. In the comic prequel, we learned that Spock has insomnia, nightmares about his mom and Vulcan’s destruction, and bursts of rage. In the film, it's very clear that Spock's trauma is impacting his relationship with Uhura. This exchange captured exactly how Spock has changed:
Uhura: At that Volcano you didn't give a thought to us, what it would do to me if you died, Spock. You didn't feel anything, you didn't care.
Spock: Your suggestion that I do not care about dying is incorrect. A sentient being's optimal chance at maximizing their utility is a long and prosperous life…It is true that I chose not to feel anything upon realizing that my own life was ending. As [REDACTED] was dying I joined with his consciousness and experienced what he felt at the moment of his passing — anger, confusion, loneliness, fear. I had experienced those feelings before, multiplied exponentially on the day my planet was destroyed. Such a feeling is something I choose never to experience again. Nayota, you mistake my choice not to feel as a reflection of my not caring. Well I assure you the truth is precisely the opposite.
The Spock of the present meets all major criteria for PTSD — re-experiencing traumatic events, avoiding situations, and becoming very sensitive to certain feelings. This isn't the resilient child we discussed earlier— this Spock is emotionally stuck, much like soldiers and veterans returning from service with PTSD. But this is not the man Spock is destined to be.
The Spock of the future (the one played by Leonard Nimoy) isn’t emotionally stuck, he’s incredibly flexible. Unlike most Vulcans, this Spock rejected Kolinahr, deciding to pursue logic and emotions. He integrated both of his cultures, switching his perspective as needed depending upon the situation he’s in. He understood conflicting points of view, making him highly empathic and open-minded. That's why he was so good at negotiating peace between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets as well as the Vulcan High Command and Romulan Empire. Captain Picard even compared Spock's tactics to "cowboy diplomacy," an emotional comparison never made of any other Vulcan. When you think about his unique biology, bicultural youth, and supportive parents, it's easy to see how Future Spock came to be.
What does this mean for the Spock of the present, the one who’s struggling so deeply with his emotions? Individuals experiencing PTSD can go down many different paths. While Zachary Quinto's Spock will never turn out exactly like Leonard Nimoy's (one experienced significant trauma, the other didn’t), Present Spock can learn to overcome his trauma and grow from the experience.
Post-traumatic growth is the positive change that happens to a person as a result of their struggle with a trauma. Trauma doesn't cause a person to grow, it's about the decisions a person makes as a result of their trauma. Many people who experience post-traumatic growth describe feeling changed by their traumatic experiences, feel more connected to others, become more resilient against crises, or have a greater appreciation for life (think Captain Picard in “Tapestry”). Growth doesn't mean people don't suffer; pain is a part of the process. Growth cannot happen until you to learn how to face difficult emotions and talk about the things going on in your head.
This is the challenge for Present Spock—to overcome his emotional demons. I won't give anything away, but based on what happens at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, we're already beginning to see signs of growth in Spock (and a lot of it has to do with his friendship with Kirk—his new source of resiliency).
A Reflection of Us
Why is Spock such an enduring character? He is a reflection of who we are.
Each of us has at one time or another felt different, strange, and out of place. As a child, Spock didn't completely fit in among Vulcans or humans. Yet he goes on to become the most influential officer in Starfleet. Growing up as a bicultural kid, I looked to Spock to give me hope that I too could overcome my “culture clash” and find confidence in myself.
The current Spock honors our experience of living in a world where we are constantly exposed to traumatic events (real or televised). While I’ve been fortunate not to be immediately impacted by a terrorist attack or natural disaster, I responded to the tragic death of my brother by avoiding my feelings. Watching Spock struggle with the loss of his mother in a similar way made me feel less crazy.
Spock’s future reminds us that our differences are our strengths. That’s the ultimate lesson from the psychology of Spock—if we can find a way to embrace all aspects of ourselves and approach life with an open mind, we are capable of great things.
March 5th, 2015 Update: Today on THE PSYCH SHOW I remember the life of Leonard Nimoy and celebrate the psychology of Spock.