Doctor Who Reminds Us That Anxiety Isn’t Something to Fear, It’s Rocket Fuel

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...”

Doctor Who, Listen,   There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. 

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

Doctor Who, Meditation on top of TARDIS outside Earth

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.


For more on anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure treatment, watch my interview with Huffington Post Live. To hear more about Doctor Who Series 8 and the Twelfth Doctor, download episode 32 of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour podcast.

Prometheus and the Fallacy of Origins (Film Review)

Note: This article contains minor spoilers for the film Prometheus.

I had very high expectations for Prometheus. Not only was this Ridley Scott's return to science fiction, a genre he fundamentally influenced through Alien and Blade Runner, but the film's viral marketing (see below) made me believe Prometheus was going to be more thought-provoking than the run of the mill scifi.

When the movie was released, I was extremely busy transitioning between jobs, so I uncharacteristically delayed seeing it. Later, after reading all of the mixed reviews, I put off Prometheus until I could Netflix it. I was already bummed that so many people hated the film and I didn't want to spend $15+ on a movie that was going to break my fanboy heart. 

I finally saw the movie on Blu-ray this past week. Visually, Prometheus was stunning. The special effects, cinematography, and sets all gave the film an expansive sense of scale that hasn’t been seen since 2009's Avatar. I LOVED Michael Fassbender's android, David. His acting was nuanced and Oscar-worthy (which of course will never happen). 

David the android, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, is the highlight of  Prometheus . 

David the android, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, is the highlight of Prometheus

Unfortunately, there's not much else to like. The remaining characters were one dimensional (e.g. the corporate boss with a hidden agenda) or acted unrealistically (e.g. scientists doing very unscientific things). Marc Streitenfeld's score was dull, which is unfortunate since Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator had such iconic music. And then there's the plot…

Prometheus is about the quest to understand the origins of our species (like Star Trek: TNG's “The Chase”), at least the first half is. The second half closely mirrors Alien (strange goo + android under orders from an evil corporation = xenomorph on the loose). Both stories are drawn out from the iconic image of a “space jockey” in Alien.

The iconic "space jockey" from 1979's  Alien  was the inspiration for 2012's Prometheus. 

The iconic "space jockey" from 1979's Alien was the inspiration for 2012's Prometheus. 

The film doesn't do either story justice. The pieces are all there, but they never come together. For example, there was an opportunity to link the extraterrestrial creation of humans with the human creation of artificial intelligence:       

Charlie Holloway: What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.
David: Why do you think your people made me?
Charlie Holloway: We made you because we could.
David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
Charlie Holloway: I guess it's good you can't be disappointed.

That thread is never fleshed out. Neither are the film's other big questions about science and faith. There are glimmers of bold and ambitious ideas, but they never crystalize.

prometheus.jpeg

When it comes to the action, Prometheus doesn't achieve the suspense of Alien or the excitement of Aliens. There wasn't anything fresh - the film is filled with predictable variations of moments every science fiction fan has seen before.

Clearly, I was disappointed. It was the same type of disappointment I felt while watching the last episode of LOST, Battlestar Galactica's The Plan, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Wars: Episodes I-III, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and bunch of other prequels/sequels that promised to deliver big explanations about already established mythologies. The issue isn’t getting answers, but the post-hoc nature of stories that provide new explanations long after the original source material was developed (e.g. using Prometheus to explain the backstory of Alien’s space jockey). You can almost always tell the difference between stories that have completely developed arcs (e.g. Battlestar Galactica) versus stories that backpedal explanations (e.g. Caprica) (notable exceptions include Godfather: Part II and X-Men: First Class).  

Outside of storytelling, this type of fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for "after this, therefore because of this") has long plagued evolutionary theories. Stephen Jay Gould (one of my favorite science authors) describes in Bully for Brontosaurus how we use current behavior to make explanations for past evolution:

“We have no proof that the [giraffe’s] long neck evolved by natural selection for eating leaves at the tops of acacia trees. We only prefer this explanation because it matches current orthodoxy. Giraffes do munch the topmost leaves, and this habit obviously helps them to thrive, but who knows how or why their necks elongated? They may have lengthened for other reasons and then been fortuitously suited for acacia leaves.”

Like evolution, you can always make up explanations for source material but since the explanations must fit within the established rules of an existing story, writers are constricted and the results tend to suck (which is why I prefer reboots like 2005’s Batman Begins, 2009’s Star Trek, and 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead of prequels).   

The same issue comes up in my clinical work. People often ask, “what happened in my childhood that caused me to feel this way?”. We try to find explanations for our current struggles based upon our early experiences. Psychology is complex, therefore the cause of almost every problem is a combination of genetics (and epigenetics), environment, learning, and stressors. People have a hard time hearing that and prefer more mythical explanations rooted in the past.

Why is this the case? Old ideas about psychology continue to thrive in our culture. These theories claim by simply understanding early causes of problems you will change. Psychotherapy is not archeology - understanding the origin of one's struggles is always a beginning in therapy, never an end. Real, long-term behavior change is a process that requires sustained motivation in learning new ways of approaching your life. 

It seems like ParadisePrometheus’s sequel, might delve deeper into exploring the origin of humans, primarily because it will depart from the shackles of the Alien mythology. I wish Ridley Scott made that film instead of falling into the trap of a prequel. While Prometheus is decent science fiction, it pales in comparison to the director’s prior work and doesn't measure up to the current standard-bearers (Children of Men, Moon, Inception, and Looper). 

Rating: 6.5/10.