My favorite movies of all time come from the original Star Wars trilogy. Growing up, I often played with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader action figures, pretending I too was a Jedi Knight.
It’s not surprising that when I faced adversity in the 7th grade, I turned to the power of the Force.
Middle school hurt. Social intimidation, academic challenges, and parental pressures all set against the backdrop of swirling hormones and my personal penchant for worry.
Around age 12, my anxiety really took flight and started to knock the wind right out of me — literally.
The smallest challenges sparked internal firestorms of thoughts that manifested in stomachaches, crying, and often shortness of breath.
My parents tried to cleave me from the throes of panic with consistent love and reassurance, but to no avail. As I grew, so too did their feelings of helplessness. Not wanting them (or me) to suffer any further, I enacted a plan.
I asked myself what a Jedi would do in this situation. The answer was obvious: use the Force to build a protective shield.
So I built one–an impenetrable emotional force shield. If I were anxious about an exam, I pushed the worry deep inside until I couldn’t feel it. If I didn’t get asked to a dance, I wasn’t hurt because it bounced off my shield and I felt nothing. By my first year of high school I had perfected the practice and became a full-fledged emotional stoic. When my parents asked how I was doing, I would say, “Fine. Fine. Nothing new.”
I believed my own words until the plan started to fall apart, and in the end was nothing short of an epic fail.
Instead of wielding the Force, I numbed it, particularly the dark side. Here’s the thing: numbing my dark emotions had unforeseen consequences; it also numbed the light.
Research confirms that in squashing worry, sadness, anger, and fear, we also push out joy, gratitude, meaning, and purpose. In choosing not to feel, I became a veritable robot with a ticking time bomb inside.
That bomb went off at age 25. Mired in a messy relationship, I hit rock bottom. Panic attacks, anxiety, and fear were un-tethered and came roaring back. I sought therapy, and with this blessing the trajectory of my life changed. I learned to focus inward, and for the first time in years I allowed all of my feelings — light and dark — to surface without judgment. In doing so, I finally unearthed the true secret of the Jedi: mindfulness.
You see, Luke Skywalker is a beacon of strength and a guardian of peace and justice not because he always feels happy and good. In fact, like all of us, Luke experiences fear, anger, worry, and even moments of hate. And though these emotions can be overwhelming, through his Jedi training, Luke learns to sit with his discomfort. He allows his emotions to surface and pass.
In practicing mindfulness, Luke’s emotions are stripped of their designations. Instead of “dark” and “light” or “good” and “bad,” emotions simply become what they were always meant to be: communication tools.
By the time Luke reaches the final battle with his father, Darth Vader, in Return of the Jedi, he is a master of mindfulness. When anger or worry spark within him, he closes his eyes and feels his emotion, allows it to surface, listens to the message it brings, and then makes a decision on how to proceed based on that information.
My first attempt at Jedi training was based on an unsophisticated understanding of the Force. With a different perspective and years of mindfulness practice, I feel confident in passing on some more effective Jedi lessons to our children.
If you have an anxious child (and especially if they love Star Wars), try these 4 Jedi mind(fulness) techniques:
1. Define the “Force”.
In the Star Wars’ movies, it becomes clear very quickly that the Force is an awesome power that everyone wants. But what exactly IS the Force?
When I work with kids, I provide them with my interpretation. The Force is the power we get from any emotion whether it comes from the light side or the dark side. From love, joy, and surprise to anger, sadness, and worry, nothing is “good” or “bad.” These emotions are only messengers, and all are part of the Force.
Very plainly, the Force = the power of emotions.
Try this: Ask your child if he or she would like to go through Jedi training. Tell them that their mission will be to decode the secret messages being sent by the Force (e.g., their worried thoughts, their angry feelings).
2. Wave hello to the dark side.
If your child feels anxious, the way around the discomfort is straight through it. We must teach our children not to deny, avoid, or squash parts of their emotional experience. Long-term avoidance of emotions can actually spark and perpetuate depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. When we choose not to face our worry, we are left much like Darth Vader, enslaved by our pain.
The alternative to avoidance is acknowledgement. I understand helping your child acknowledge his or her anxious feelings instead of shutting them down is not an easy choice. Sometimes it’s easier to just say, “Don’t worry so much. Please trust me, it’ll be fine.”
As a parent myself, I completely understand this path. Sometimes we don’t have the emotional fortitude to support a child’s chronic worry, especially when it seems our love and reassurance are not having a positive effect. Anxious emotions are often big emotions that can be uncomfortable for the entire family.
All that said, when you parent an anxious child, you seek one thing above almost anything else for your child: inner peace. Toward this goal, acknowledgement is the stepping stone.
Try this: Next time your children worry, tell them they are a Jedi Knight, and Jedis acknowledge the Force (an emotion) when they feel it. They can wave hello to their worry and say, “Hey, worry. I see you’re back. I’m a Jedi. I understand you’re trying to tell me something.”
3. Lean into the Dark Side
Leaning into the dark side takes training because, at first, it can feel messy and uncomfortable. Leaning in means allowing your child the space to physically feel where the Force or worry is flowing on the inside. Allowing discomfort to pass gets us a step closer to decoding the message from our emotion.
Anxiety activates the sympathetic nervous system, and as such, feelings of worry are often felt in such places as the stomach, chest, and throat. Breathing with visualization can calm the nervous system and begin to kick a child’s logical brain back into gear.
Try this: Obi-Wan instructs Luke to close his eyes and, “Stretch out with your feelings”; Yoda says, “Allow the force to flow through you.” When your son or daughter worries, have them close their eyes and ask them where they are feeling the worry or the Force flowing inside of their body.
Now, ask your children to breathe into the place in their body where they feel the Force. While they take a deep breath, ask them to imagine what the Force actually looks like. What color is it? What consistency is it? Maybe it looks like a dark cloud. Once they have the visual, ask them to breathe the Force out.
To support your child during this process, you can use phrases like, “I am here, and you are completely safe, my young Jedi. This feeling will pass.”
4. Put the Light Saber Down
Our range of feelings (light and dark) creates our emotional consciousness and gives power to the Force. Within this consciousness lie encoded messages. The problem is we usually miss the communication being sent by our emotions such as anger and worry because we are too busy reacting. Swift reactions cover up messages.
Darth Vader tries to provoke these reactions in his son, Luke. Vader says, “So you have a twin sister? If you will not turn to the dark side, then perhaps she will.” Luke feels very angry and even as a full Jedi Knight trained in the art of mindfulness, he does not pause to acknowledge or lean in to his anger. Instead, he reacts right away and begins to battle his father.
When Luke regains his composure, he realizes that his anger is communicating that he wants to love and protect his family, including his father. Luke then decides the best way to teach his father about the light side is to show him compassion. So he turns his light saber off and tosses it aside.
Now, this last step may seem way too esoteric for your child to grasp, but I’ve worked with children for years. Even at a very young age, they are incredibly sophisticated. If we communicate in their language, they get it.
Try this: Let’s teach kids their worry is trying to send them a message, but the message is encoded. As a Jedi, the way to get to the secret message is to be mindful when we feel worried. This means understanding worry has a purpose, acknowledging it, leaning into it, and then making a logical decision on how to proceed.
On this quest toward training the next generation of Jedi, may the Force be with all of us.
This article is meant to provide some practical steps to help your anxious child and to highlight the idea we can use different (and fun!) ways to teach our children the art of resilience. For more engaging anxiety relief techniques for your child, join Renee at gozen.com.
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This article was originally published at PsychCentral. Reprinted with permission from the author.