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

Chapter 9

Taking Superhero Action Steps

Monica rereads the text message for the sixth time: “Lacey attempted to commit suicide. She slashed her wrists. She’s at the hospital.”

Her fingers trembling, her heart pounding, Monica is finally able to dial Lacey’s father’s phone to find out which hospital Lacey is in and rush over there.

Often, our assumptions and fused thoughts can make us think that our experiences are entirely about us—for example, that the reason someone is ignoring us has to do with our own inadequacies. Monica thought Lacey ignoring her texts meant that Lacey was mad at her or hated her. In fact, Lacey, like Monica, was also struggling with her own Depression and Shame monsters.

When Monica arrives at the hospital, Lacey is extremely embarrassed to tell her that she’d been struggling with depression, cutting, and suicidal thoughts for several years. Seeing her best friend hurting so much both hurts and warms Monica’s compassionate heart. She sits with Lacey, holds her hand and then shows her friend the scars from her own wrists. Her own heart is beating very fast and her Anxiety monster is terrified of being so open about her own struggle, but both girls hug and cry together, feeling more connected and less misunderstood.

Lacey’s suicide attempt made Monica realize that she was not the only one struggling with depression. She was anxious and afraid, but her newly found sense of purpose—connecting with her values of helping others—gave her the courage she never knew she had. Monica asked her school’s permission to make an announcement during the student assembly. Her hands shaking and her heart pounding, she approached the podium. When she looked down at the audience, Lacey looked up at her with a smile, her arms still in bandages.

Monica knew that she wanted to begin spreading awareness about the effects of depression and eating disorders on people’s lives. Her voice was shaking when she began her speech. “I wanted to share my story with all of you. I struggle with depression. I also have bulimia and when things get really tough, I cut. I’ve gotten some help recently and I’m starting to feel better, although it’s still challenging at times. I wanted to let all of you know in case any of you struggle with these or other mental health or physical conditions. You don’t have to go through it alone.”

When Monica was finished, she had tears running down her face. She was not the only one crying, however. Students and teachers alike were crying too. Lacey was crying and smiling at the same time. The entire school stood up to applaud Monica’s courageous and encouraging speech. Afterward, many students opened up to her about their own struggles with depression and other disorders.

Monica is an example of an inspiring hero who, despite her monsters’ shouting, was able to courageously reach out and help hundreds of other students who were struggling with mental health difficulties. Being a hero therefore means taking mindful steps that are in line with the values that we identified in chapter 5. It means that even though we might still struggle with our monsters, we can practice all or some of the skills we’ve learned, like defusion, mindfulness, self-compassion, willingness and connecting with our superhero self in order to actively take superhero actions toward our values.

We can try this by first connecting with our own heroes. Is there a hero you really identify with, real or fictional? Perhaps someone you look up to, someone you wish you could be more like? Now see if you can think of or try to imagine what this person’s values might be—courage, heroism, creativity, or something else? What are some of the obstacles your hero might have faced and how might your hero have overcome them?

One of my biggest real-life heroes is a famous fantasy novelist, Neil Gaiman. He is incredibly talented as a writer and extremely supportive of and encouraging to his fans. I always just assumed that he was quite confident and had no obstacles to overcome in his career. Of course, looking back at it, this thought is clearly a silly one, as everyone struggles at least at some point, even the most successful people. I once saw Mr. Gaiman do an interview for one of his novels. When asked if he ever feels insecure, he said that not only does he sometimes feel insecure, but that there have been many times when he felt like a fraud and like the “Fraud Police” would find out. This interview made me see things in a very different light. It really highlighted an aspect of common humanity for me: that everyone struggles with insecurity but not everyone talks about it. Hearing my hero talk about his own struggle inspired me to talk and write about mine. What is interesting about that is that the more I talked about it, the more courageous I felt, allowing me to more closely follow my own values: courage, authenticity, compassion, creativity, and helping others.

Take a few moments to write down the answers to these questions in your superhero journal in order to help you begin taking leaps in your superhero career: What do you value? What are the obstacles? Which skills might be helpful in dealing with at least some of these obstacles?

One of the biggest obstacles that holds many people back from being their full superhero self is an attachment to outcome. Attachment to outcome means having a specific and rigid idea of a goal. For example, becoming a best-selling author/artist, being selected for a job promotion, or being graciously thanked for a good deed. Of course, it would be nice to get what we want. However, sometimes when we are holding on to those desires too rigidly, we are essentially setting ourselves up for disappointment. If things do not go our way or if our goal is not met, then we might feel devastated. Rather than becoming overly attached to a specific outcome, we can practice taking non-attached steps (when possible) toward our valued direction. This might mean continuing to work on your creativity, career, or relationship because it is important to you, rather than because you expect a certain kind of reward. Practicing more flexibility in our regard to outcomes can allow us the freedom to explore what is truly important to us and potentially allow us to grow and develop in that area, often making us feel more fulfilled than when we have a set expectation of an outcome.

For example, when Doctor Semper first began traveling around the universe in his Simulator, he expected that he should always be able to save everyone he met. While that is an admirable goal, it is an unrealistic one, and when he was unable to save that little girl, he was naturally devastated. The truth is that just about anyone in his situation would be heartbroken if they failed to save someone. However, Doctor Semper experienced the kind of guilt and trauma that many doctors, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and other first responders and crisis workers often experience. The loss itself was, of course, excruciating. However, the attachment to the outcome added to his traumatic experience, making it difficult for him to recover, and triggering his panic attacks and agoraphobia.

Now, as he is working toward his values of trying to help people, Doctor Semper drops off Drovin back on his home planet of Kridaq. Drovin is hesitant to go inside, and Semper graciously offers to walk with him. As the two begin to approach Drovin’s old family home, Doctor Semper notices that his hearts have started pounding in his chest and he begins to sweat. His Anxiety monster is shouting at him to stop, but the Doctor compassionately reassures his monster and continues to walk with his friend.

When the men enter, Drovin’s son runs up to him, excited to see him, and his wife is in tears, happy to see him as well. In taking the most challenging step for him—self-compassion—Drovin is able to begin to practice self-forgiveness and is able to connect with his biggest value: having a strong relationship with his family. And for the first time in a long time, he knows what he is grateful for.

Katrina is also facing her fears as she drives to join Shadow and Neil at the Wizarding College after the trio find out about the College being taken over by demons. Katrina is terrified. Her palms are sweating, her shoulders are tense, there are times when she holds her breath; her heart is beating loudly in her chest, and her Anxiety monster is insisting that she is unsafe. Normally, Katrina would have listened to her monster and avoided driving; however, this time she has a mission: to help her friends stop the demons’ attack. She buckles herself and her monster in and starts the ignition. The car starts moving. Katrina’s anxiety initially spikes so much that her vision gets blurry, but after a few moments the blurriness begins to dissipate. Sometimes spiking up and sometimes reducing to more manageable levels, Katrina’s anxiety stays with her but so does her courage.

When they get to the Wizarding College, Neil and Shadow quickly run inside to try to help out the remaining teachers and students, who are being threatened by demons. Neil sees that Brian is among those who are captured. His anxiety increases but so does his anger and his adrenaline. Usually these physiological sensations—the shallow breathing, sweating, the tension in his shoulders—make Neil very uncomfortable, but today he has a purpose: to use his expertise and magic to save others. After using his own defusion charm and self-compassion magic potion, Neil feels stronger and more prepared. He then shoots a fireball toward the demons that are holding the hostages. He is able to release the hostages in a single spell, but the demons are relentless. Two of them grab his arms and attempt to capture him.

When Shadow sees her friend in danger, she feels a surge of anger running through her body.

Shadow has not felt this courageous and invigorated in months. Her hunter instincts kick in and she grabs the demons one by one and pulls them off of Neil. She then single-handedly defeats more than two dozen demons, helping Neil and his classmates save the school from certain destruction. Feeling invigorated and reunited with her life purpose, Shadow turns to check on Neil and sees him walking away with Brian. The two wizards are holding hands. She smiles. She feels different… She feels content.

These are just the beginnings of the journeys taken by our heroes, who continue to work on taking steps in their valued directions. That is not to say that they never struggle, because they do, often. However, their new connection with their valued direction has given them the courage and the motivation to continue on their superhero, journey and the skills they have learned helped them reduce their struggles with their own monsters.

And now it is your turn to become a superhero. You might not believe it, but you are ready now. Put on your cape/cloak/trench coat and let’s begin. Today is the day you can take your first step (or perhaps not even the first) to being a real superhero. You might want to write down today’s date, because today is when it all begins. Taking a look at your values, which one can you work on today? Which skills would be helpful to you in this process?

Superhero Steps

Challenge yourself to take a step in one of your valued directions every day. These do not have to be major life-changing actions. Start small and keep working from there. Record your progress every day and continue working on mindful gratitude. Here is a recommended gratitude practice for this week: write a letter to someone you are grateful to and, if possible, send it to that person. If that individual is no longer living or is a fictional character, then write the letter and read it out loud to yourself.