Anxiety Is Like a Cardassian
How what we are watching now helps us cope with our current crises.
Posted June 29, 2020
Anxiety is surging right now. This is not news to most of us.
The Washington Post(1) reports that fully one-third of Americans are experiencing clinical anxiety or depression or both right now. This number is far greater than normal.
The American Psychological Association has been tracking American stress levels for a number of years. They have released two reports in 2020, indicating that stress levels in America have risen significantly during the COVID-19 era (2). Stress levels of parents have risen, in particular, due in part to a variety of parenting-related stressors, such as supervising distance learning, fear of their children missing out, and fear of the future.
About 8 out of 10 Americans (83 percent) reported feeling stressed about the future of America following the death of George Floyd. More than 7 out of 10 (72 percent) report that this is the lowest point in American history that they can remember (2).
As we are collectively experiencing stress, I want to talk a bit about how human beings use stories to cope and refer to a recent experience I had using my Star Trek fandom in my quest to reduce my own stress.
Postcards From the Star Trek Universe
I use guided meditation podcasts to help me cope with stress. I also use stories, such as films and television shows. Recently, those two words came together. It happened when I was listening to a guided meditation by Jay Michaelson on the app 10 Percent Happier. The guided meditation, Opening to Anxiety, built on the premise that recognizing anxiety in the body is a step towards recognizing when we resist anxiety, which, in turn, reduces anxiety.
As Jay Michaelson asked me to think about how anxiety shows up in my body, I started visualizing a great tension in my neck and shoulders and, to a lesser extent, a sick feeling in my stomach. As I focused on this neck and shoulder tension, an image came to mind that Star Trek fans will recognize: the image of a Cardassian.
I've Got the Neck Tension of a Cardassian
If you are like me and you know a lot more about the Cardassians (people from the planet Cardassia in the Star Trek universe) than you know about the Kardashians (fill-in-your-own description here), you’ll know what I mean. Here’s a picture of Gul Dukat, arguably one of the greatest Cardassian characters in the Star Trek universe.
I don’t know the anatomical terms for what gives Cardassians their signature appearance. Suffice it to say that they have bony, spine-like ridges running down the sides of their prominent necks. (They may be spines; someone will tell me.)
The point is, when I visualize tension running down the sides of my neck, I realized that I feel like a Cardassian—my neck feels tight and prominent. I feel sick to my stomach, which apparently is giving me a nasty grey complexion!
While this is surely the most obscure analogy (or is it, since Star Trek fans are everywhere?), my point is that I realized I could use this analogy as a cue to make me recognize when I’ve been pitched into high-level anxiety. “I feel like a Cardassian” could be my cue to do something to shift my perspective in order to cope with the stress.
Cardassians, at least the political figures with whom we spend the most time in the series, are also a serious people. They spend their time engaging in treacherous back-room political scheming and the relentless pursuit of power and aggression, as pointed out in this description of Cardassian Gul Dukat from StarTrek.com:
“Probably the most complex and fully developed bad guy in Star Trek history, Gul Dukat had his thumbprint on all seven years of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, from the first episode to last. Volumes could be written about this Cardassian—loyal officer, tyrant, family man, philanderer, outcast, political sellout, cult leader, conspirator with evil spirits...” (3)
OK, so some people might visualize themselves as an animal or force of nature when they are stressed. In my case, if I start feeling the tension build, I may use my knowledge of Star Trek characters and scenarios to remind myself that I need a shift in perspective. I might need a reminder that I should let go of anger over, for example, office politics and look for something to shift my perspective to one of gratitude or humor. After all, some of us know what happened to Gul Dukat in the end!
Harry Potter Spells
One of my go-to examples of using humor to cope comes from another fan universe: Harry Potter. The kids in the Harry Potter universe are taught to use the Riddikulus spell to take away the seriousness of their anxiety over the things that they most fear. The trick is to imagine what you fear as actually being funny.
One of the reasons we are drawn to our favorite characters is that they inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. Watching superhero movies might inspire us to imitate the superhero's bravery. Villains and anti-heroes might remind us to avoid their fatal flaws. Sometimes a favorite character may simply remind us that we all struggle, that we all face terrible choices, and that we all know humiliation and fear.
Perry Mason Can't Lose
Lately, my husband Lee and I have found ourselves watching the Perry Mason TV series (1957-1966) starring Raymond Burr(4). IMDB describes the series like this (5):
“Perry Mason is an attorney who specializes in defending seemingly indefensible cases. With the aid of his secretary Della Street and investigator Paul Drake, he often finds that by digging deeply into the facts, startling facts can be revealed. Often relying on his outstanding courtroom skills, he often tricks or traps people into unwittingly admitting their guilt.” (5)
My husband said to me while watching Perry Mason that one of the things that draws him to it during this pandemic is the feeling the show gives him that those times were simpler and more predictable (whether true or not). We both think that the fact that Perry Mason is so strong and confident, so good at winning even when he’s tackling a “lost cause,” makes his stories (written by Erle Stanley Gardner) comforting in a time like this. I find myself wishing I could win impossible cases like Perry Mason. Hopeless case? I got this!
Shows from the '50s also remind us of the way we have thought about sex or other social categories over time. Watching Perry Mason, I often literally shout, “Sexism!” when a character says something like, “Why is she hysterical? She’s a woman!” [I do rely on some less-than-subtle parenting techniques.] I seriously talk to my daughter about sexism using Perry Mason characters as a point of entry.
On the other hand, as I've told my teenage daughter, I take comfort in the character of Della Street on Perry Mason, because she is a respected and valued working woman. [There’s apparently a 2020 re-boot of Perry Mason that we’ve yet to watch.(6)]
Stories and Coping
Stories help us understand the human experience. Whether we use them to visualize stress, to overcome it, or to simply take a journey back to a time and place we never actually inhabited, many of us are finding something of interest in the stories we choose to watch right now. Here’s hoping you find something that makes coping with this crisis even a little bit better.
(2) American Psychological Association: Stress in America: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-june?_ga=2.141405298.1326533114.1593461245-1921821469.1548360743
(3) Great Star Trek Villains, Gul Dukat: https://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/features/specials/article/1617.html
(4) Perry Mason Series (1957-1966): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050051/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2
(5) Perry Mason (1957-1966) Storyline by Murray Chapman: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050051/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2
(6) Perry Mason series (2020) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2077823/