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

Chapter 3. Training Your Mind to Be a Hero's Mind

As Katrina Quest approaches her new car, she immediately feels her heart rate increase. With her sweaty hands she attempts to put the key in the door to open it, but her hands are shaking too much to allow her to do this.

She does not even have time to close her eyes before the flashbacks begin. Suddenly she is back there, at the scene of the accident. A drunken truck driver has crashed into her, nearly killing her. It is as if she is right there again, seeing the truck right in front of her, seeing the windshield shatter.

Even now, nearly a year after that event, she can still see it and almost feel it in her body. Her shoulders tighten so much that she looks completely stiff. Frozen with fear, her heart pounding, she stands next to her car as her anxiety monster yells out, “This is not safe! You are going to die!” Katrina stands frozen as she tries to remember how to breathe again. She is forced to relive her past until her body gives in and allows her to cry as a form of relief.

Katrina is a superhero who uses her ability to fly in order to help other people. However, since she was in the accident, Katrina has neither been able to drive nor fly. The car accident caused her to develop a driving phobia, along with a flying phobia. In addition, she struggles with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After experiencing a traumatic event, such as a car accident, we are likely to replay that scenario over and over again in our minds. We might therefore be living in our past or, as is also the case for Katrina, be scared about our future. Katrina expects that every time she will get behind the wheel, she will get into an accident again. She also believes that the same will happen if she flies, even though she has never been injured while flying. Her constant worries about the possibility of getting into another accident are preventing her from experiencing what is truly happening in the present moment.

On the other hand, Shadow Gray is living in the past. Shadow is a demon hunter. Armed with a crossbow and sarcasm, Shadow and her team typically roam the streets of their hometown, hunting demons and protecting human beings. But sometimes demons are not the scariest beasts that humans need to fear. Two years ago, Lorion, a fellow demon hunter, attacked Shadow and sexually assaulted her. She trusted him. He violated that trust. To this day Shadow feels hurt, “weak,” and “broken.”

When she told her friends about the incident, some of them did not believe her, while others told her that she should consider dating Lorion, because he was “such a great guy.” Two years later, Shadow is still haunted by the memory of what happened to her. Her friends fail to understand why she can’t “just get over it and move on” since the assault happened “so long ago.” Over the past six months, Shadow has begun distancing herself from her friends and stopped going out on demon patrols, as she does not believe she is capable of helping herself, let alone others. Shadow struggles with PTSD, depression, and shame about what happened to her, as well as guilt for “not being able to prevent it.”

Katrina’s and Shadow’s experiences are sadly not uncommon and the painful incidents of our past often affect our beliefs about the future. One of the best elixirs for difficult experiences is mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to purposely observing our experiences in real time and without judging them (as “bad” for example). More specifically, it refers to noticing our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, our five senses (sight, taste, smell, sound, and touch), and the environment around us. You can think of it as like a healing potion in a video game or tabletop role-playing game. This magic potion might not taste good but it is helpful for recovery; experiencing anxiety, depression, or other painful sensations can be unpleasant, but allowing ourselves to feel them may help us recover in the long term.

Why mindfulness?

Researchers actually find that when we are anxious, overwhelmed, traumatized, or otherwise distressed, our minds begin to wander. Usually our minds go into problem-solving mode by default and often focus on something negative, like an embarrassing moment or an anxious thought. Scientists also find that the more our mind wanders, the unhappier we are likely to be. With that we might also feel more anxious, more stressed, or more depressed, and might be more likely to try to avoid these sensations (which, if you remember, is a villain’s trap), potentially making us more likely to be emotionally and physically unhealthy.

There is a saying, “Name it and you tame it,” which suggests that mindfully acknowledging our emotions might make them less overwhelming. Imagine if rather than running away from the monsters, you could see and acknowledge them, as if they were wearing name tags, almost as if to say, “Hello, my name is Anxiety.” In fact, if we were to notice the emotion of anxiety, we might also notice the physiological changes that it brings, such as rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, and muscle tension, especially in the upper back, neck, and shoulders. For some people anxiety also leads to a clenched jaw and jaw pain, tight wrists, sweating, and other symptoms. Spending time noticing these symptoms might alert us that we need to roll our shoulders back, unclench our jaw, and perhaps focus on our breathing. If we ignore these symptoms, the body is more likely to keep increasing them in order to get our attention. On the other hand, mindfully noticing these symptoms, and spending some time experiencing each one, often might reduce them.

I want to be clear here: mindfulness is not itself an antianxiety tool. This means that mindfulness will not make us anxiety-free, although it often feels relaxing and might lead to a reduced anxiety state. However, this is more of a side effect and not something to expect.

Practicing mindfulness is kind of like having a wise mentor, like an elderly wizard or a knight trainer. Sometimes the mentor might be encouraging and make you feel better about yourself. Sometimes, however, the mentor might point out a skill that you may be struggling with, which might not necessarily feel good to hear. However, the mentor’s words will be helpful to you in better knowing your practice, and it will always be wise.

In essence, mindfulness practice is kind of like having a LifeLink (an enchantment that can extend life) in a game. In fact, scientists are finding that regular mindfulness practice reduces stress and better regulates blood pressure, as well as reducing anxiety, depression, PTSD symptoms, and chronic pain symptoms, and leading to better outcomes for eating and substance abuse disorders. In addition, mindfulness has also been found to improve romantic relationships and potentially prolong life.

Now that we know that mindfulness is an essential part of your superhero training, how do we begin to practice it? One quick mindfulness exercise I like to use both for myself and for my patients is the “Where are my feet?” practice. I sometimes refer to it as “quick and dirty” or “mindfulness for busy people” because it does not take very long to complete. In order to do this practice, we need to ask ourselves, “Where are my feet?” and notice where our feet* are at the present moment. The feet will usually be on the ground, or at times elevated, or perhaps stepping on the car accelerator or brakes. This practice might immediately ground us by reminding us where we are at a given moment, and that neither the painful past nor the dreaded future are happening right now.

A slightly longer mindfulness practice includes focusing on the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. There are numerous ways of practicing mindfulness that involve engaging the senses. One way could be to allocate a period of time (for example, ten minutes) for sitting still and focusing on one sense at a time. Another way could be to spend a couple of minutes just practicing noticing your surroundings, such as the colors, shapes, and all kinds of details (large and small) in your environment. Then you can focus on the sounds that you might be able to hear, and so on.

* For people with a physical disability that prevents them from making contact with their feet or for people who are missing limbs, the exercise can alternatively focus on a different part of the body, for example, the hands, the jaw, or the tongue.

Another mindfulness exercise involves focusing on the breath. Just as with the five senses exercise, we can set aside approximately ten minutes (or more if possible) to bring awareness to our breath. We can focus on the sensations that come up when we inhale and exhale. There are a number of smartphone apps and guided mindfulness recordings available on the Internet.

If your life is too hectic to be able to spend ten minutes a day on a mindfulness exercise, then you can consider incorporating mindfulness into your everyday routine. For example, when taking a shower you can notice the feel of the water on your body and the sound it makes, while also noticing the scent of the soap and seeing the soap bubbles around you. You might also be able to practice this while brushing your teeth, eating a meal, or drinking tea or coffee. The latter examples, of engaging our senses while eating or drinking, are of what’s called savoring. Very often when we are eating, we might quickly finish our meal without fully enjoying it, sometimes without fully noticing what or how much we have eaten. The savoring practice consists of taking the time to use our senses to fully enjoy a specific experience, such as eating.

Another part of mindful savoring can include a gratitude practice. Gratitude refers to giving mindful appreciation for something or someone. Gratitude does not have to be about something major; it could be about anything, such as a morning cup of coffee, about what someone might have done for us at one point, or about a particular memory. The research on gratitude suggests that a daily gratitude practice of naming one to three things for which we are grateful can reduce anxiety, depression, and stress, among other benefits.

See if you can name one thing you are grateful for today. It does not have to be big; it could be something like your friends, family, your abilities, or your interests, or something smaller, such as a warm cup of coffee. If you are not in a place where you can do this today, that is OK too. Just notice this difficulty without judgment and notice what’s happening in your body as you experience it. In fact, gratitude practice is not always easy, and sometimes when we’ve been through a really hard time, we might struggle to find things to be grateful for. That is perfectly normal and if you are unable to find anything to be grateful for today, it is no problem; we can try again tomorrow. In addition, I would like to point out that it is also possible to feel grateful while feeling what seem to be conflicting emotions, like anger, shame, or resentment. For example, Neil might have a lot of shame about struggling with his magic classes, but at the same time he is also grateful for the opportunity to attend the Wizarding College.

As we are starting to get deeper into your superhero training, I am going to ask you to practice mindfulness this week every day in whichever way is available to you: either by noticing where your feet are, focusing on your five senses, mindful savoring (for example, of music, food, or tea), doing breathing practice, or gratitude practice. If you are struggling with any of these or if they bring pain or discomfort, notice that too and see if you can also notice what your body might need (for example, rest, food, or relaxation).

Some of the biggest obstacles to practicing mindfulness have to do with mistaken beliefs that some people have about this practice. Very often when I talk to my patients about mindfulness, they might say that they have tried it at one point and found that “it didn’t work.” Most people who first attempt to practice mindfulness believe that mindfulness means taking a lotus posture and meditating for hours and hours without having a single thought. That is actually not accurate.

Superhero Steps

This week I recommend that you try to set aside some time to practice your superhero mindfulness training daily. This might include being mindful of your breathing or five senses, or perhaps a meditation practice if you already have one. Feel free to use phone apps or download guided meditations for this practice if you would like.

If setting time aside to practice mindfulness is impossible on certain days, then practice mindfulness on the go, asking “Where are my feet?” and paying attention to your senses while doing other tasks, such as eating, showering, or commuting.