Superhero Therapy: Mindfulness Skills to Help Teens and Young Adults Deal with Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma

Chapter 1. A Hero's Journey Begins With a Struggle

Have you ever wanted to become a superhero? Have you ever wished that you could have amazing superpowers, such as superstrength, the ability to fly, or the ability to heal people? Or perhaps you wished that you could travel through time and space, enjoying the many adventures that you would encounter along the way?

Most people I meet wish that they could have special superpowers or magical abilities and most say that if they possessed them, they would use them to help others. One thing I have observed from the years I have spent working with patients with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain disorder, and many other physical and mental health struggles is that most people are capable of a lot more than they know. I have learned that in a time of need, people come to experience superpowers they never knew they had, finding courage, strength, and motivation they never believed to be possible.

The truth is that I too for many years wished that I could have magical abilities, specifically the ability to heal or save people. A traumatic experience I underwent in my early childhood left me feeling “weak,” “broken,” and not in control of my own destiny. When I was just a few months shy of my third birthday, there was a large nuclear explosion in a city called Chernobyl, not too far away from where my family and I were living in Ukraine. Unfortunately, many of us did not know about the extent of this disaster for nearly a week after the explosion occurred, so we continued eating local fruit and drinking tap water, all of which were poisoned.

The radiation spill was catastrophic and left many people, including myself, to experience lifelong consequences. For me, the effect was that my immune system shut down, most of my symptoms caused by weather changes. When it was hot outside, I was likely to get an extended nosebleed, landing me in the hospital. When the weather would get chilly, I would be home for weeks with bronchitis. When the barometric pressure would drop before rainfall, I was sure to get a migraine or, worse, a seizure.

As I lay in my hospital bed after yet another seizure, feeling weak and powerless, I dreamt of having strength. I dreamt of being healthy. I dreamt of being able to cure and inspire people who were going through a difficult time, the very ones who often thought about giving up. Like I did.

I was twelve when my family and I moved to the United States. I thought that things would get better if I was away from radiation. I was both right and wrong. While my health improved after our move, my overall situation did not. Most of my classmates at school did not understand what radiation was, nor did they know what seizures were. I was bullied a lot—a situation that may be familiar to you. It wasn’t uncommon for me to overhear my classmates telling each other that I was “radioactive.” Many people would refuse to use things I had touched, like pencils, mistakenly believing me to be contagious.

I felt alone. I felt like no one would understand how depressed I was and how much I hated myself.

It all changed when I saw the first movie about the “Super Mutants.” At the time I did not know who the Super Mutants were; while I read a lot of fantasy books, I had not yet got into comics. The movie became my portal into the world of superheroes, where people with super-abilities used these powers to help others. Most importantly, this was the first time I was able to find characters I connected with. The characters were mutants, all with some kind of genetic modification, just like me. My favorite of all of them was Thunder because she could control the weather, a power I wished I could also have since my own maladies were all weather related.

It was after seeing this film that I first became fascinated with the idea of using fictional characters, like superheroes, to help myself and others overcome difficult emotional experiences. As I began analyzing my favorite fictional characters, I noticed something—most of them underwent an excruciating personal experience, which shaped their personality and made them the very hero that they eventually became. Think about it: Most of the fictional characters you know probably experienced some kind of a deep personal struggle, such as losing their parents, somehow being different and feeling alienated from other people, or being forced into a heroic journey that they felt unprepared to be a part of. Some faced loss along the journey, underwent deep traumatic experiences, had doubts, and battled depression or addiction. Sound familiar?

When facing these kinds of struggles, many people (myself included)might view them as a sign of personal weakness and might be too discouraged to continue their heroic mission. But what if these struggles are not a sign of weakness? What if the very struggle you are going through is a representation of deep interpersonal strength that only you could experience? What if the very thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that you have struggled with were merely obstacles to be overcome on your own superhero journey? And what if there was a way to help guide you on your superhero path?

Every hero has a mentor or a sidekick to help them along their journey, and I can be yours. Together we can learn how to battle the monsters of depression, slay the anxiety dragons, release the binding ropes of trauma, and avoid the snakes of addiction temptation. Superhero therapy uses methods from evidence-based (research-supported) therapies, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), as well as other research-supported interventions, such as self-compassion. All are known to help people better manage their anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction (including overeating), as well as to improve healthy behaviors such as exercising, socializing with others, and gaining courage; in essence, they help people become the kind of hero that they always wanted to be.

Please take a few minutes to answer the following questions with a True or False response. You will also take the same survey when you are finished with your superhero training in order to measure your progress.

1. My symptoms overwhelm me T/F

2. I must get rid of my depression/anxiety/shame/anger T/F

3. I spend most of my time worrying about the future T/F

4. I spend a lot of my time fixating on the past T/F

5. My self-critical thoughts (such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not attractive enough”) have become my identity T/F

6. I don’t spend enough time doing things I care about T/F

7. I am unhappy with many aspects of my life T/F

How many T’s and how many F’s do you have? Write down the exact number. Notice any judgments or painful emotions that arise when you are answering these questions. Remember that, just like you, most people struggle with very similar difficulties. You are not alone in this.

We are going to take this journey together. I recommend that you read one chapter each week, either by yourself, with a friend, or with your therapist. Each chapter introduces a new superhero skill and gives you a chance to practice it. Some skills might be easier for you than others, and some skills you might find more useful than others. Feel free to modify your own superhero training program in any way that best supports your current needs. Many people find it helpful to get a notebook, perhaps one with a picture of your favorite real-life or fictional hero on it, in order to inspire you and help you keep track of your progress.

This book will demonstrate training for six different heroes: Shadow Gray, Katrina Quest, Doctor Apeiron Semper, Drovin, Neil Scott, and Monica Mercury. Although these characters are fictional, their struggles are real, as they are based on some of my patients in real life.