Star Trek and Managing Stress

Screenshot from Star Trek.

I wish I could respond to stressful situations the way the characters in Star Trek do. Spock weighs his options before acting during even the most pressing danger, and the bridge crew calmly carries out orders in the heat of battle. My responses, on the other hand, are rushed, unplanned, “fight or flight” reactions that cause more problems than resolutions.

In the Star Trek original series episode “The Corbomite Maneuver,” a new crew member, Lieutenant Bailey, panics when the Enterprise encounters a rainbow cube floating in space that’s blocking their way. Bailey shouts out in fear when he sees it, which earns a reprimand from Spock. Later, still feeling embarrassed, he interrupts Spock and defends his outburst by noting that he, like all humans, has an adrenaline gland. Spock replies, “That sounds most inconvenient. Have you considered having it removed?”

I can’t control what I feel. But I can control how I act.

When Kirk and Spock begin analyzing the situation, attempting to communicate with the cube and planning a strategy, Bailey presses them to shoot first, before the cube has a chance to attack. But since it hasn’t threatened them, they observe it for eighteen hours before proceeding. And even after Kirk declares, “It’s time for action,” he orders special maneuvers to try to lose the cube as it follows them—to Bailey’s chagrin, since he jumped the gun on Kirk’s command and began issuing orders to the weapons crew instead of navigation.

When the cube does attack, and later, when the cube’s commander, Balok, addresses the Enterprise and decrees he will kill everyone, Bailey hesitates to respond, too overwhelmed by the situation to function. Several times, Sulu leans over and does Bailey’s job for him. Finally, the stress is too much for the lieutenant. “Somebody’s got to do something … What are you, robots?” Bailey yells. Spock and the other crew members’ calm behaviour is incomprehensible to him.

Bailey’s impatience and irrationality make me cringe. Watching characters get in trouble usually does, since I hate being publicly corrected. I also cringe because I recognize myself in his reactions. I get upset immediately when something goes wrong instead of analyzing my situation. I complain about my co-workers in front of others instead of keeping my opinions to myself. I jump to conclusions and interrupt others instead of listening to all the facts. I let emotions dictate how I respond to stressful situations.

But Kirk sees promise in Bailey, because he was once the same way—passionate, reckless, and afraid. Dr. McCoy notices their similarities as well, saying to Kirk, “You spotted something you liked in him, something familiar, like yourself, say about eleven years ago?” We get a glimpse of young Kirk’s carelessness in the rebooted movies, where he mouths off to his superiors and doesn’t respect Spock’s viewpoint. But Kirk learns that his emotions don’t have to dictate his actions and realizes the value in examining a situation from multiple angles. On the other end of the spectrum, Spock learns—after Vulcan is destroyed—that attempting to suppress emotions can also impair his judgement.

I wish I could respond to stressful situations the way the characters in Star Trek do.

Kirk and Spock both know how powerful emotions can be, and it takes effort, not to control, but to make peace with their feelings and still make wise choices. They learn how to do this through practice and a willingness to humble themselves when they let emotions control their responses. Bailey sees the wisdom of the other crew members and realizes he can learn a lot from them, especially when Balok declares he was just testing them. Balok comments that Bailey may be a more accurate portrayal of human nature than the rest of the disciplined crew. Even Balok recognizes that emotions are human, and dealing with them healthily takes dedicated effort but yields great rewards.

Though the new reboots often reward characters for making split-second decisions, I appreciate that “The Corbomite Maneuver” displays impulsivity as a dangerous flaw. Like young Kirk and Bailey, I’m still learning to separate my emotions and my behaviour. When I speak without thinking, I regret my words. When I make a snap judgement about a person or situation, I’m usually wrong. When I give up on a problem without considering it from all sides, I don’t build persistence or gain knowledge for next time.

I can’t control what I feel. But I can control how I act. I can study characters I admire—including the crew of the Enterprise—and imitate their responses. I can accept that my emotions are powerful and often tumultuous, but they don’t have to control me.

Alex Mellen

Alex Mellen

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Alex Mellen likes a little bit of everything, including movies, books, sports, music, crafts, and especially Star Wars. She works as a copyeditor for a small-town newspaper while freelance writing and editing on the side.
Alex Mellen