7 Real Jedi Mind Tricks
“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi
I suppose there are some people who, when they first saw Star Wars, were mainly wowed by the lightsaber duels and spaceship dogfights. Certainly, these are the most visually impressive sequences in the original film. But then there are some weirdos, like me, who got chills up our spines every time someone mentioned the Force. From Luke’s first encounter with Ben Kenobi to his X-wing assault on the Death Star, we were thrilled by the intimation that there was something more to the galaxy, and we wanted desperately to be Jedi knights. Some of us would go on to study psychology, meditation, Eastern philosophy, martial arts, and other esoteric disciplines in hopes of learning the secrets of the Force — and some of us ended up becoming therapists.
As a therapist, I’m less impressed these days by blindfolded laser-fencing and X-wing telekinesis than I am by Obi-Wan’s famous line: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” I often wish I could just pass my fingers in front of a client’s eyes and say, “You will never use heroin again,” “You will stop worrying about things you can’t control,” or “This is not the relationship you’re looking for.” (EMDR is about the closest I can get.) After all, most of us struggle less in our daily lives with Sith lords or swarms of TIE fighters than we do with the daily demands of work, relationships, and our own emotions.
It is a commonplace among therapists that change takes time. But in the course of my training, I have learned certain practical techniques that you can use right now, in the moment, to hack your mind, your emotions, and your performance. These are the real Jedi mind tricks.
1. Take a deep breath.
If you’re feeling nervous or panicky, take a few slow, deep breaths. This may sound like mere common sense, but deep breathing triggers equally deep neurobiological responses. In particular, slow, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. “Vagus” means wanderer, and the vagus nerve meanders from your brainstem to most of your internal organs. It’s the interstate highway of mind-body connection. Stimulating the vagus nerve engages the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that calms you down — “rest and restore” as opposed to “fight or flight.” You can also stimulate the vagus nerve by gently massaging the sides of your neck.
2. Touch yourself.
No, not there (unless you’re in private, of course). Research shows that physical touch releases oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that helps us emotionally connect with others — engaging our “tend and befriend” instinct. And as far as your body is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether the person touching you is someone else, or you. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, the clinical psychologists who created the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program, recommend a Soothing Touch practice in which you place your hand over your heart, just enjoying the gentle feeling of pressure and warmth, while taking a few deep breaths. If you don’t like the feeling of your hand on your heart, you can try putting a hand on your abdomen or another part of your body, instead. This is a quick and effective way to comfort yourself in moments of anxiety or emotional pain. In combination with deep breathing and comforting self-talk, I’ve found it especially helpful for clients who suffer from panic attacks.
Of course, soothing touch is equally effective at helping other people calm their emotions, including your children, partner, or close friends. Just make sure your touch is coming from a place of genuine care and concern, and respect other people’s personal and cultural boundaries. It’s well known in psychology that physical touch makes you more persuasive, enhancing compliance with various kinds of requests (at least in cultures where touch is acceptable). A light touch on the upper arm can be remarkably effective when asking your partner to do the dishes, or for the coordinates of a hidden Imperial base — just don’t be all creepy about it.
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” — Master Yoda
3. Name your emotions.
Difficult emotions like anger and fear are born in the ancient, sub-cortical regions of our brains, sometimes referred to as the “downstairs” brain. Using language to name our emotions in real time requires us to engage our logical left and frontal cortices (the “upstairs” brain) and helps us regulate the signals coming from downstairs. Dr. Dan Siegel refers to this strategy as “name it to tame it.” According to Siegel, engaging the upstairs brain to name our emotions actually releases a tide of neurotransmitters that calms the activity in the sub-cortical regions. So, next time someone cuts you off in traffic, feel the rush of adrenaline and the surge of anger, and note to yourself, “feeling fear and anger.” Then turn your attention back to the road (or your favorite podcast). It’s a lot more effective than dwelling on what an asshole that guy was, all the way home.
It’s also possible to calm someone else’s brain by helping her name her emotions. Whether it’s your child, your partner, or your friend, simply asking “how are you feeling?” or reflecting, “it sounds like you’re feeling angry” can help defuse the alarm signals going off in the other person’s brain.
“Do, or do not. There is no try.” — Master Yoda
4. Talk to yourself.
We all talk to ourselves, averaging hundreds of words per minute. What you say to yourself matters, and so does how you say it. Studies in sports psychology show that talking to yourself in specific ways can improve your performance on difficult tasks. The three types of self-talk identified in the studies are motivational, instructional, and evaluative. All three are useful, as long as you keep your self-talk positive. We use motivational self-talk to encourage ourselves: “You can do this!” Instructional self-talk helps us stay focused and learn new tasks, like flying a manual landspeeder: “Okay, first engage the clutch, then shift into first gear.” Evaluative self-talk helps us assess our performance after the fact. “Not bad — next time just relax a little more and trust the Force.” The most important thing is to talk to yourself the way a good friend, a trusted coach, or a kindly Jedi master would talk to you.
“Use the Force, Luke.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi
5. Call yourself by name.
Speaking of self-talk, recent studies have found that addressing yourself by name, or as “you,” may be more helpful than saying “I.” Researchers hypothesize that thinking of yourself in the 2nd or 3rd person may give you more distance and objectivity when observing your emotions, preparing for nerve-wracking tasks, and evaluating yourself. Rather than psychically hearing Obi-Wan’s voice from the hereafter during his run on the Death Star, maybe Luke was just talking to himself the way the old man used to.
“In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi
6. Say “thank you.”
You don’t have to feel grateful in order to give thanks. In fact, it works just as well the opposite way around. Expressing gratitude engages the hypothalamus and ventral tegmental area, parts of the brain associated with stress regulation, pleasure, and reward. Making a short list of things you’re grateful for is proven to make you happier. But expressing gratitude can also have a disarmingly positive effect on other people’s behavior. According to this study, saying thank you is a good strategy for dealing with the grumpy and insecure — it increases their sense of social worth, and decreases their tendency to denigrate others. So next time you get stopped by disgruntled Stormtroopers, simply say “Thank you for your service.”
7. When all else fails, watch cat videos.
Or look at any pictures of baby animals — the cuter the better. It might be difficult to imagine Darth Vader watching Maru, but according to a study from Hiroshima University, looking at kawaii images produces positive emotions associated with approach motivation and systematic processing, and helps us focus and improve our performance on tasks that require carefulness. This is probably because we are hardwired to take good care of babies, and baby animals — with their big heads, big eyes, and so on — trigger the same instinctual response. So, next time you need to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, make sure you spend a few minutes on the kitten cam, first.
“You have taken your first step into a larger world.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi
By practicing these basic techniques, you can substantially improve your ability to manage your own emotions in your daily life. Many of these techniques are used by modern Jedi like Buddhist monks, mixed martial artists, and even Navy SEALS. By learning them and applying them, you are taking a strong first step toward becoming a modern Jedi.
Please share this article with anyone you know who might enjoy reading it, or who would benefit from learning these techniques. Follow me on Medium for more mind tricks as well as thoughts on other aspects of psychology, spirituality, and culture. May the Force be with you!