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.