Avengers on the Couch

Restoring Earth's mightiest heroes after Infinity War

Posted May 02, 2018

Joey Nicotra_Unsplash
Source: Joey Nicotra_Unsplash

*Spoiler Alert! Following article has multiple spoilers from Avengers: Infinity War*

Loki? Choked to death. Black Panther? Erased from existence. Spider-Man? Turned to dust. Half of humanity? Gone.

This is the painful reality facing the Avengers at the end of the Infinity War. They are a shattered team who have finally lost. They have seen friends and family disappear. They are numb from countless near death battles. They are traumatized like so many EMTS, veterans, and other brave men and women I’ve worked with over the years.

After leaving the film on opening night I couldn't help but ask: How could I use my clinical expertise as a licensed psychologist to help these superheroes recover from this trauma? If I were to work with the Avengers there are many mindfulness based, emotion focused, and strength enhancing interventions that would help these heroes get stronger and start to heal. The Avengers are a team that function best as a group. Thus it would be important to treat both the individuals and also the group as a whole. Here are some group and individual interventions I’ve used successfully to help veterans, parents, and corporate teams overcome loss and thrive.

Mindfulness Skills: The foundation of mental calm and focus comes from mindfulness practice. Unfortunately the Avenger most prepared to teach this to the team, my fellow clinician Dr. Strange, was also vaporized by Thanos. The remaining Avengers like Thor, Captain America, and others with more traditional masculinity values might find that mindfulness conflicts with their worldview. Mindfulness asks us to compassionately accept the current moment no matter how painful or wrong it can feel. This isn't an easy task for most but especially those who don't see how accepting a defeat is anything but cowardly. For example, it would be important to help Thor, who just watched his brother die in his arms, learn the difference between accepting pain of this loss and accepting such a grave injustice. This would likely also be true for most of the team. After all, this is a group more familiar with fighting things out rather than accepting feelings of loss and hopelessness in the present moment in order to let them pass. Eventually I’d be able to engage the members of the team more familiar with traumatic loss and living despite pain/grief (e.g. Captain America and Bruce Banner/Hulk) to engage in some mindfulness practices that are a part of Navy Seal training like box breathing and body scans. By involving apps like Calm and Headspace in treatment, I might even be able to enlist Iron Man in mindfulness practice-I'm sure he couldn’t resist trying to improve these apps which would ultimately require him to use them and practice mindfulness.

Gaining Respect for Emotions: The Avengers know respect for law, human rights, and even their enemies like Thanos. However, few of them have grown a healthy respect for strong feelings in their mental health and wellness. While Banner has spent years learning to respect and utilize his anger, it seems fear and anxiety have gotten in the way of accessing the power of the Hulk in battle. Similarly, though Tony Stark has gone through a lot of pain and growth, I worry that watching his young protégé, Spider-Man, die in his arms might bring him back to using sex and alcohol to numb out the shame and sadness. Finally I worry about the ever stoic Black Widow. How much pain, anger, and shame might she be holding as she couldn’t rescue her young teammates from being destroyed? 

All of these heroes, like the many type-a people I work with, hold strong beliefs about being tough, independent, and stoic-unfortunately these same values conflict with the vulnerability and interpersonal courage required to use emotions well. Using psycho-educational interventions, I'd help the team to understand how holding these beliefs limit emotional intelligence and emotional regulation abilities.  From there I’d introduce them to an emotion focused model of living-respecting your emotions as the signal system for your mind. The Avengers need to relearn how to respond to emotions with respect. One way I help many people do this is by teaching them to ask: how do my emotions make sense rather than how can I make my emotions go away. When the team gets comfortable with this new way of relating to their emotions, I might even introduce them to DBT emotion regulation modules like responding with the opposite action when their emotions pull them to act against their values. All of our emotions guide us to action but sometimes these actions conflict with our values and then we need to act opposite from the emotion. For example, working with Captain America I'd help him identify his values including honesty and team work conflict with the desire he gets to isolate and avoid others when he is sad. Using opposite action he would realize he should do the opposite action when he feels sad and reach out to others for support. If he continued to use this skill with all his emotions, Steve Rodgers would find relief as he learned to trust his emotions and grow his coping skills. 

Healing with Strengths: Eventually the team would start to reengage with life despite all the death that happened around them. Using the new emotion and mindfulness skills they developed they could start to identify new strengths. When I’ve worked with organizations and teams in the past, I’ve helped them boost team morale, rapport, and mutual respect by having them label each other's strengths. Imagine how powerful it would be if Steve Rodgers and Tony Stark could help label each other's unique strengths? This could be enough to repair the ruptures caused from the Civil War and build a powerful cornerstone of a new team that could take the Infinity Gauntlet back. I've seen first hand how this kind of repair among leadership creates new, powerful foundations for organizations and teams to grow.

Working with the Avengers through this much grief would be hard and painful but with a few insights and some new emotion & mindfulness skills they could become even Mightier Heroes.