DR. JAN NEWMAN
When I worked as a director in a university-run residential treatment program for at-risk boys, a core component of our group treatment program was emotion regulation. My doctoral students and I always knew when we said the word “emotion,” we were going to get the usual responses: groans, moans, eye-rolling.
These normal responses would be followed-up with comments like “Why do we have to learn this stupid stuff?” and my personal favorite—“Feelings are for girls.” Yet I always got excited because I knew what was going to happen next.
“What if I told you that emotions are for Jedi? And for people who want mastery but not to be mastered? To manage and not be managed? I probably shouldn’t even teach you guys this stuff because it’s like the Force – it’s probably too powerful anyway.”
They saw through my mind tricks, but somewhere between Jedi and the Force, they were hooked on learning these skills.
Whether I’m working with C-suite executives or troubled teens, managing emotions is typically the first skill I introduce. How a person handles unpleasant emotions often defines how capable and successful they are in managing their relationships, career, and health.
Because these skills are so important, we need to learn them in a way that will stick with us. For my teen and some adult clients, pop culture is often the solution. In fact, metaphor and narrative are incorporated into some evidence-based treatments like acceptance and commitment therapy (also known as ACT).
Yet when I teach emotion regulation skills, if my client is a fan, I always come back to the one narrative that rules them all—Star Wars.
Star Wars is one of the most successful movie franchises in history. Much has been written about the reasons Star Wars has been so popular and enduring. And we all have our reasons for loving it. One of my favorite aspects is how Star Wars shows that everything is connected.
Specifically, Star Wars illustrates how we are all connected through emotion. By demonstrating how different characters regulate their emotions (or not), Star Wars was made for teaching emotion regulation skills.
Here are some of the most critical ones.
The first step in emotion regulation is awareness. It is important to be aware of emotions; to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they do. Understanding these concepts involves some neuroscience with a shot of Star Wars.
Yoda refers to the dangers of lacking awareness of emotion in nearly every episode—especially the emotion of fear.
In Phantom Menace, Yoda foreshadows the tragic story of Anakin Skywalker: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Although incredibly wise, Yoda is not a big fan of pronouns. Yoda is not saying that fear is innately bad or that experiencing fear leads to the Dark Side.
Instead, it is the fear of experiencing that emotion, that being fear, and trying to avoid, ignore, or push it down that leads to the Dark Side. In one of the Star Wars, books he says it much more clearly: “Named your fear must be!”
It’s All In Your Head . . . LITERALLY
First, emotions originate from various structures and networks in the brain. Yes, it is all in your head, but once you get it, that’s kind of a good thing. It means you’re human, not crazy.
The process of emotional experience and response is extremely complex and involves many neural structures. To simplify things, we are going to refer to generally categorize them into three parts, which can also be creatively explained using neurobiologist .Dr. Dan Siegal’s “handy” model of the brain If you want a deep dive in the neuroscience of emotion regulation, you can take a deep dive here and check out resources below.
Brain stem (aka “lizard” brain): Our brainstem is the most primitive part of the brain regulating our most basic responses and something we share with reptiles.
Limbic system (aka “emotional” or “monkey” or “squirrel” brain): The limbic brain involves many neural structures including the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and others. This part of the brain is primarily responsible for the creation of our emotions and different forms of memory but is something we have in common with other mammals—specifically primates.
Cerebral cortex (aka thinking brain): Various parts of the cerebral cortex (specifically the prefrontal cortex) play a critical role in our awareness and regulation of emotions. It is the part of the system that helps us make better decisions and what separates us from lizards and primates. Unfortunately, this part of the brain is most compromised during an intense emotional response.
Staying Connected: Using the Light Side of the Force
It is important to note that although the emotional brain is quite powerful because it is causing physical (and often uncomfortable) changes in the body, it remains connected to the cortex or thinking brain. This connection is like a staircase connecting the upper and lower regions of the brain.
You need this connection between the limbic brain and the thinking brain to survive AND make good decisions—this is the essential path to the light side of the Force. In Star Wars, the Light Side is associated with calmness and used for knowledge and defense.
Without the limbic brain, you lose your instincts, which would threaten survival. The goal is not to “get rid” of these physiological sensations, but to use a much more rare ability to observe and respond to them. In ACT, this is often called the “observing self” but the concept is also called metacognition. This is your ability to “zoom out” from your experience of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations to be aware of them more like an observer. Some of my clients who like video games compare this to “third person” or “god” view in a video game.
This awareness allows you to detect a “disturbance in the Force” if you will.
If you allow the limbic brain to dominate by “zooming in” and focusing on the content of thoughts and emotions without awareness, the connection breaks. You are now more prone to react, not respond, which may lead you to the Dark Side where you may survive or defeat your enemy— but at a very big price. (Think: Anakin Skywalker fighting Obi Wan on Mustafa).
Feel, Don’t Think: Using Your Instincts
Emotion is also a physiological arousal state of our central nervous system in response to a stimulus event (something that causes a response).
When an emotion is triggered in the brain, a complex series of changes occur in the body and the brain. Most changes occur via the autonomic nervous system (ANS) including the sympathetic nervous system (or SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (or PNS) and are mediated via the periaqueductal gray.
These systems interact to prepare us to respond.
(Again, we are simplifying the neuroscience WAY down here and presenting this information more to allow for quick understanding.)
“Fight or flight” responses are driven by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which mobilizes us for threat and is an activating system. If you’re attacked, you might be ready to fight the threat. In Star Wars, the fight response is demonstrated in many battles, but it is important to distinguish how those using the Dark and Light side manage it differently.
Alternatively, if you detect a threat, your brain may signal you to take flight and leave to stay safe. If it’s a lion charging towards you, this instinct is probably fine. However, in today’s world, many people act on this instinct for things that will not harm them and/or need to be faced.
A good example of this more harmful avoidance is portrayed in The Last Jedi through Luke’s reluctance to train Rey. His fear is the belief that she will turn out just like Kylo, which is pretty ironic given that’s exactly what he got mad at Yoda about in Empire.
“In today’s world, many people act on the flight instinct for things that will not harm them and need to be faced.”
Both fight and flight responses are associated with SNS arousal. Physical changes from SNS arousal can include elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, cold hands, perspiration, trembling, rapid breathing, etc. We also develop tunnel vision and lose peripheral vision causing us to hyperfocus on a threat.
Cognitively, our brains become even more focused than usual on negative information and are like lint rollers for the negative.
Without the connection to the thinking brain, the emotional brain is prone to black and white thinking leaving no room for grey. In Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan points this out to Anakin during their battle on Mustafa—”only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
Finally, there is much less research on the freeze response, which is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, specifically the dorsal vagal response. There are many different forms of this response, so we generalize here.
However, in a 2014 study, a group of researchers at the University of Bristol identified a pathway known as the pyramis that mediates this response. Basically, the difference between the fight or flight responses and the freeze response is hope. The freeze response is basically your brain saying: “There is no hope – prepare for imminent death.”
To illustrate the concept of emotional awareness and the effects of SNS arousal, consider the fight scene between Kylo Ren, Finn, and Rey in The Force Awakens. In this scene, both Kylo and Rey are receiving critical signals from the limbic brain. The emotions they are experiencing are neither good nor bad. The way they react to their emotions marks the difference.
Kylo has just murdered his father and is bleeding – he is emotionally compromised, but there is no awareness.
He pounds the wound on his chest to prove he is not afraid. The connection has broken. He is now ruled by his limbic brain but has nothing but his Dark Side thoughts and emotions to help him make decisions. Rey had just seen her father figure, Han Solo, murdered in cold blood, got thrown against a tree, and is using a lightsaber for the first time, but yet, she pretty much kicks Kylo’s tail.
We’ll get to why the breathing was so important later, but one key advantage that Rey has was that she was aware of her emotional responses. At one point during their fight, we see her struggling and it seems like she is beginning to panic. Rey was not denying her emotions of anger over Han’s murder and Finn’s injury or fear of Kylo’s strength.
Instead, by staying connected and using the Light Side of the Force, she leveraged her emotions as Yoda instructed—for “knowledge and defense.”
The polyvagal theory of emotion regulation emphasizes the social engagement system. Again, there are more theories of regulation than we could cover in this article, but this offers a useful way to conceptualize without geeking out to much on the neuroscience. This system is the most recent to develop and associated with our engaging in social relationships. This system also includes the “relax and digest” response. Like the freeze response, these responses are driven by the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve, but are more focused in the front and center of the body including the ventral vagus nerve.
Unlearning What You Have Learned: Jedi Mind Tricks
It can be very easy to get swept away by their “Fight Flight Freeze” or FFF responses. Also, some people are—either through biology or traumatic experiences—more sensitive to their FFF responses. Our FFF responses are not only automatic but also unsettling and uncomfortable—especially when we are experiencing certain unpleasant emotions such as anger, shame, sadness, helplessness, frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, etc.
We don’t like these emotions, and we want to get rid of them.
Your brain may start saying things like: “You are going to lose control,” or “It will be too much,” or “You can’t give in now.” There may be other thoughts or none at all. Either way, ignoring or avoiding our emotions breaks the connection between the emotional and thinking brain and is the path to the Dark Side. What do you do? Think Rey, not Anakin.
It’s like surviving a tsunami in the middle of the ocean, it is likely better to surf the wave than try to stop it with your hands or kick it into submission.
In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s actions in his duel with Obi-Wan illustrate the futility of the latter approach. The connection to his thinking brain is gone, and he only has the Dark Side. He masks his paralyzing fear of loss with anger and hatred. He fears that he could lose his wife like he lost his mother.
“You must do the hard thing—choose to stay with your emotional experience.”
Everything and everyone is a threat—even Obi-Wan. Without the connection to his thinking brain, he views everything through the lens of the Dark Side— his wife’s bids of affection and Obi Wan’s repeated attempts to reason are all viewed as a betrayal. In the end, Anakin is the one who hurts Padme.
What could Anakin have done differently? Taken a few lessons from Rey. Rey uses a combination of physical (bottom-up) and cognitive (top-down) techniques that can help you manage your internal and external experiences.
Rey uses physiological grounding techniques and “bottom-up” techniques.
In the beginning of her duel with Kylo in The Force Awakens, Rey is stumbling and clumsy. Then, Kylo tells her that he can show her the ways of the Force. She instantly understands what she has felt all along. She breaths and channels the Light Side of the Force to reconnect.
Deep breathing and present-moment awareness help to activate the PNS. When Luke guides Rey in using the Force, he says “just breathe.” Rey then demonstrates this skill throughout the movies.
The PNS includes the vagus nerve and is associated with the “rest and digest” or relaxation response.
This response returns the system to baseline by helping you take deeper breaths and get more oxygen to your brain and tissues and lower our heart rate. At this point, the limbic brain and thinking brain can reconnect. Physical movement is also helpful which can clear out the extra cortisol released during FFF and satisfies those responses.
Rey also uses mental techniques such as expansion and acceptance. Other cognitive or top-down techniques include defusion from ACT and mindfulness. Mindfulness has been described many ways in the research, but generally speaking it includes techniques that focus on the awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness is a fundamental tenet of the Jedi.
Qui-Jon Jinn tells Obi Wan, “Be conscious of the future. But not at the expense of the present moment.”
If we are unable or unwilling to process a type of emotion, we may avoid situations or people that will require us to face that emotion. Again, this pretty much sums up Anakin Skywalker’s life until The Return of the Jedi. Annakin focused on controlling the future especially to protect those he loved including his mother and Padme. This future focus is what Palpatine exploited to turn him to the Dark Side.
When we open ourselves to acknowledge and observe our thoughts without getting “hooked” or caught by them, we are able to determine whether those thoughts are helpful or just “busy mind” and the constant hum of our brain doing it’s thing. When you can observe your thoughts without getting caught up in them, then you can pursue actions that align with your values.
You don’t need to do 10-minute meditations to access this system. You can observe your thoughts and emotions and bodily sensations in the present moment – in the shower, when you’re walking, and even when you’re mowing the lawn!
Now you have a powerful way to access emotion regulation that can be especially helpful to describe to kids and teens. Because it is based on a movie (something outside of yourself) it encourages you to observe and not judge, which is key to mastering emotion regulation without shame. And if you try and fail, then it is still winning.
The purpose of emotion regulation is to use and leverage your emotion – like a Jedi. Although many people associate anger with power, when you practice these skills, you quickly start to see that responding calmly and compassionately feels much more powerful in relationships and at work.
When you are regulated, you can then think about your values and what matters most to you at that moment. Is it your relationship with your partner or child? Is it your value of authenticity at work or school? Whatever it is – you can now set your compass and CHOOSE an action that aligns with that value. And this is ultimately what it’s all about – doing what matters now!
And what about the risk of failure? That’s an inherent part of taking action. Honestly, though if we’re not failing pretty regularly, we’re probably not trying hard enough.
When Luke tells Yoda he does not know how to teach Rey in the wake of his failed apprenticeship of Ben Solo, Yoda responds: “Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm…but weakness, folly, failure, also. Yes. Failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”
Ultimately, that’s one of the greatest lessons of Star Wars—facing your fears over and over again to pursue what matters to you.
Originally published in Shrink Tank October 2018
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