Did you ever wish you could have superpowers like Superman, magical abilities like the characters in Harry Potter, or that you could be connected with the Force like the Jedi of Star Wars?
My love for geeky things, such as fantasy books, movies, and TV shows, did a lot more than provide me entertainment—it helped me recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and cope with loneliness during my adolescence. I was born and raised in Ukraine, and just a few months shy of my third birthday, my family and I were all exposed to Chernobyl radiation. As a result, my health seems to be forever affected in many different ways, including that I still get severe migraines that appear to be triggered by changes in the weather.
After moving to the United States at the age of 12, I struggled for years with symptoms of PTSD (I wasn’t formally diagnosed until I was 24) and believed myself to be weak and broken. I considered myself a freak. But these feelings changed when I saw the first X-Men movie. The character Storm especially caught my attention—she could control the weather. When I watched the X-Men, I saw some of myself on the screen. I felt an odd sense of belonging, and I reframed what I perceived as flaws or weaknesses as my own little superpowers. I began to feel like I wasn’t just a victim of my circumstances.
Obviously I didn’t connect all of these dots at such a young age. My family, and later my therapist, helped me understand this. But as I grew up I began to recognize just how much solace I found in connecting with fantasy characters and how they positively impacted my mental health. Fast forward 15 years later, and I became a clinical psychologist because I wanted to help people in the same way as the X-Men helped me.
I started incorporating superheroes and other pop culture characters and examples into evidence-based therapy to help my clients to become superheroes in real life.
This practice is called superhero therapy. The concept behind it isn't brand new, and I know of other clinical psychologists who incorporate superheroes or comics into counseling. But my practice involves using pop-culture elements—such as traditional superhero stories, or examples from Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and other fandoms—into evidence-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Superhero therapy seeks to help people like Bruce Wayne, only in real life—people who have experienced a devastating loss, or a traumatic experience, who struggle with debilitating depression or overwhelming anxiety to help define and understand their own origin stories. (In general, superhero therapy can be utilized for anyone ages 10 and up, although some professionals implement some of these techniques with younger children.)
A lot of people don’t have an easy time identifying their own thoughts and emotions, in part because they might be painful to face, or they’ve just never really taken the time to think about and process them. Another one of the main reasons this approach is helpful is because most of us tend to feel isolated when we are struggling with a loss or a physical or psychological illness.
Worse, we tend to criticize and shame ourselves for feeling bad. And when we are in greatest need of compassion and social support, we often alienate ourselves from others. As a result, we exacerbate our own sense of loneliness and depression and further draw out our suffering.
So, knowing another individual—even a fictional one—has gone through similar experiences, can allow a person to come to terms with their own experiences. Our favorite stories can be strong reminders that we are not the only ones who have endured certain experiences or emotions. Our favorite heroes have gone through pain, rejection, anxiety, depression, addiction, PTSD, heartbreak, and losses the same way we do.
Superhero therapy reinforces the fact that social connection doesn’t always have to occur in real life.
In fact, even what we call “parasocial interactions,” or connections with fictional characters or stories, can help reduce loneliness and alleviate symptoms of depression and can heighten feelings of love and belonging for some people.
I usually start this type of treatment approach by asking my client whether there are any characters (from books, movies, TV, whatever) that they are a big fan of. Then, I’ll work on drawing connections with the client’s current issue or experience and also decide on what type of more traditional therapy approach makes the most sense. The reality is, superhero examples can be pretty seamlessly incorporated into so many different traditional therapy modalities, including CBT, ACT, and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
I’ll give you an example: One of my clients, let’s call her “Lauren,” came to therapy in the wake of being sexually assaulted and was experiencing nightmares, flashbacks, bouts of anger, and periods of crying. Lauren was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—she could not relate to her friends, she was avoiding her parents, and her grades were slipping.
Lauren also could not talk about the assault when she first came to see me. She would either cry or shut down completely when we tried discussing it. She could neither name nor process her emotions related to the assault. However, there was one topic she was willing to talk about: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This television show was about a teenage girl, Buffy Summers, who was a high school student by day and a vampire slayer by night, and we would spend some of our sessions not even focusing on Lauren’s experiences, just watching episodes of Buffy.
Although Lauren struggled to identify her own thoughts and emotions, she was able and willing to talk about Buffy’s. We used CBT to help Lauren understand how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all affect one another, through the context of what Buffy was going through in the show. We then watched an episode where Buffy herself admits to struggling with trauma (after having died and being brought back from the dead). Buffy then has nightmares, flashbacks, and anger; she engages in risky behaviors and avoided her friends and responsibilities. Finally, Buffy confides in her friend Spike about how much she’s struggling: “Everything here is hard, bright, and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch…this is Hell,” she describes.
When Lauren watched this clip, she pointed to the screen and said, “That! That is exactly how I feel. Every day.”
That was the first time my client was able to connect to and explain her feelings. As we continued working together, she was able to start labeling her emotions as “hurt, angry, devastated, and heartbroken.” She was able to identify maladaptive and painful thoughts she was having (such as it was my fault that this happened, and, I should have done something to prevent it). Over time—with the help of seeing the parallels between Buffy’s fictional experience and her own reality—Lauren was able to see that our thoughts aren’t always accurate, and by changing her thoughts and her behaviors, her mental health state began to improve.
Superhero therapy is designed to help people create meaning out of their struggles in order to both recover themselves and to possibly help others who are also struggling with a similar issue.
It's also designed to help promote self-acceptance, self-compassion, and positive behavioral changes. But is superhero therapy guaranteed to work for everyone? Of course not. Therapy experience is unique for everyone, and what works for one person may not resonate with another. But in my experience, exploring superhero therapy can be a powerful tool to help clients cope with mental health issues through fiction.
If you’re someone who, like me, considers yourself immersed in a particular geek culture, or you relate on certain levels with any fictional fantasy character, don’t be afraid to bring up that interest with your therapist, even it if sounds silly. This can give your therapist a tool to add to your mental health toolbox—and they won’t be aware of the fact that you have a particular interest in a character or fandom unless you mention it. Sometimes using an outside example—even from a book or TV clip—as reference to contextualize something you’re experiencing personally can function as a surprising window into understanding your real life.
Janina Scarlet, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and the author of Therapy Quest—a self-help book which combines therapy with an interactive fantasy quest.