According to Travis Langley, Ph.D., Dr. Janina Scarlet uses examples from television and movies to connect with students and therapeutic clients. According to Olga Khazan at The Atlantic, “Superhero Therapy” encourages people to think like their favorite movie characters. It seems to work. Janina Scarlet knew she finally had a way to connect with her patient when the girl began talking about Veronica Mars. At a recent American Psychological Association conference, Scarlet, a psychologist at San Diego’s Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, recounted how the 15-year-old at first had trouble speaking about past trauma. In sessions, her parents did most of the talking. In fact, the only thing the girl would talk about was the TV show starring Kristen Bell.

What Is Superhero Therapy?

Superhero Therapy is becoming a bit of a buzzword on the Internet and in clinical communities. This concept isn’t entirely new – a number of therapists have in fact been using Superhero Therapy for years. The definition of Superhero Therapy is a bit broad and this post intends to offer some clarification on the matter.

Does it have an Exact Definition?

As the concept is fairly new, its exact definition has not yet been established. Generally speaking, in the world of psychology, Superhero Therapy can refer to either psychoanalyzing Superheroes or to using Superheroes in therapy in order to facilitate recovery. Both can potentially be helpful and informative: the former by helping us understand our favorite characters (for example through books such as Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight; and The Psychology of Superheroes), the latter by potentially helping us shape our own behavior in order to recover.

Who uses Superhero Therapy?

Several therapists have been using Superhero Therapy to treat a variety of disorders, including anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is done by incorporating examples from comic books, movies, and TV shows as the means to allow the client to better understand what he or she is experiencing. Often when someone is struggling with a painful experience it might be difficult to make sense of the present situation. In addition, painful emotional experiences, such as depression or trauma, can potentially be alienating, creating false beliefs that we are the only ones going through this or that no one else will understand. Sometimes recognizing that some of our favorite heroes have been through a similar experience can potentially be healing. Research suggests that when we identify that we have gone through a painful experience just as others have (the concept of common humanity), this can allow us to feel more connected and that connection with others might even inspire physiological changes in the body, such as the release of a hormone, oxytocin, which has been shown to be related to increased feelings of love and compassion, reduced stress, reduced depression and anxiety, and increased lifespan.

How are superheroes used to help real people?

Superhero Therapy calls for the integration of examples of heroes relevant to the client, such as Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and others. Therapists typically start the treatment by asking the client whether there are any characters from books, movies, or TV that they like and then work on drawing connections with the client’s current presentation, as well as setting and implementing treatment goals. Superhero examples can be easily incorporated into nearly every therapy modality, including evidence-based treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on increasing the client’s willingness to mindfully experience thoughts and emotions in order to lead his or her life according to personal values. This is where Superhero examples can be especially useful. For example, after young Bruce Wayne (Batman) suffered the painful loss of his parents, he realized that what he valued most was making Gotham City a safe place. Although it was not an easy journey, he mastered a number of fighting techniques, as well as science skills in order to follow his value. In addition, since the Caped Crusader does not believe in unnecessary violence, he does not use guns or explosives despite the fact that it means that sometimes he gets injured. This example can be used to assist the client in figuring out how he or she can become their own version of a Superhero. For example, if someone wants to help people as Batman does, the therapist can work with the client in identifying ways to follow this intention, such as by volunteering at a homeless shelter or by performing random acts of kindness. When people lead lives that are in line with their values, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other struggles can sometimes be reduced.

Finally, Superhero Therapy does not only need to include characters that we traditionally think of like superheroes. For example, Buffy (The Vampire Slayer) can be used as a powerful example of acceptance of one’s destiny and doing what is right despite how difficult or painful it might be. What are some of your favorite heroes that you identify with? Whom do you relate to or wish to be like?

This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.