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A Jedi triumphant: Luke Skywalker traverses the darkness of Complex PTSD

It took a lot for him to come back, both physically and mentally.

Throughout the 42 years of Star Wars‘ Skywalker Saga, Luke Skywalker has been regarded as a standard-bearer of hope, heroism, and positivity in cinema. Our introduction to his story is a tale of an everyman farm boy that takes on the superweapon of the Empire. That story was eventually subtitled “A New Hope,” to further illustrate this point.

When I think of Star Wars, it brings me feelings of joy and happiness that are rooted deep in my childhood, and I know it’s the same way for a great many others. When we watch or hear about the heroic actions of others, we enjoy the glory of the triumph over darkness so much that we give almost no consideration to the impact that facing the horrors brought the hero.

Since becoming a counselor (one that specializes in trauma, at that), I’ve learned to look at Luke’s story differently. He’s among the most famous heroes in cinema history, but despite his name being synonymous with light and hope, his story is full of tragedy, loss, and constant exposure to trauma.

Luke Skywalker is a prime candidate for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), based on the multiple horrific encounters he has during his life. C-PTSD is a relatively new term, designed to capture the differences in symptom presentation from single event/short term trauma and trauma from prolonged or repeated exposure to traumatic events. The current definition of PTSD “does not fully capture the severe psychological harm that occurs from prolonged, repeated trauma,” according to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs National Center for PTSD.

Some of the most notable differences between PTSD and C-PTSD are that the tendency to isolate becomes chronic, multiple types of dissociation occur, trust issues/suspicion of others increases to the point that other people must be evaluated or tested before being trusted on a limited basis, emotional dysregulation intensifies, there is a loss of faith in beliefs, humanity, deities, etc., an intense negative self perception accompanied by shame and guilt, and distorted perception of or obsession with the perpetrator of the trauma. Luke demonstrates nearly all these symptoms when we meet him again in The Last Jedi, and even shows many of them in The Empire Strikes Back, in his encounters with Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Darth Vader.

Luke is exposed to trauma in many forms over a long period of time. He experiences generational trauma by being the last of the Jedi and a survivor of a civil war, a witness to war crimes (genocide, planet destruction, slavery etc), he sustains multiple physical injuries including loss of a limb, has multiple near death experiences, gets mauled by predators, gets captured, is psychologically tortured, is responsible for the deaths of well over a million Imperials (1.14 million estimated to be on the first Death Star alone), defeats Vader and the Emperor but failed as a master, and trained the second coming of Vader in Kylo Ren.

Pre-A New Hope

  • Death of Father
    • Uncle Owen’s story about his father being a spice freighter pilot
  • Death of Grandmother
    • Seems unlikely that Shmi being taken by Tuskens would not be ingrained into how Owen and Beru protect their home and their nephew.

A New Hope

  • Attacked by Tuskens
  • Learns that his father was a Jedi and war hero who was murdered
  • Jawa slaughter scene found
  • Sees his home burning along with the burning skeletons of his aunt and uncle
  • Almost killed by Ponda Baba and Dr. Evazan
    • Obi-Wan kills them in front of him
  • Shot at multiple times
  • Nearly crashes/narrowly avoids capture from Star Destroyers
  • Alderaan destroyed
  • Captured by Death Star tractor beam
  • Forced to take lives on Death Star
  • Almost drowned by monster/crushed in trash compactor
  • More gunfights
  • Obi Wan killed by Vader in front of him
  • Tie Fighter attack
  • Combat pilot deaths during Yavin battle
  • Loss of Biggs Darklighter (his best friend) during Trench Run
  • Responsible for deaths of 1.14 million Imperials on Death Star

Empire Strikes Back

    • Hoth
      • Wampa attack
      • Nearly froze to death
      • Shot down
        • Loss of Dak
      • Taking more imperial lives in Walkers
      • More pilots and soldiers die all around him
    • Dagobah
      • Crashes ship into swamp
      • Almost lost R2D2 to the swamp monster
      • The cave battle with Vader
      • Force visions
    • Bespin
      • Fight with Vader
        • Loses badly
        • Psychologically abused
      • Learns Vader is his father
      • Loses hand
      • Almost falls to his death
      • Han captured by Boba Fett

Return of the Jedi

  • Rancor fight
  • Sail barge/Sarlacc
  • Speeder bikes
  • Ewoks try to eat him
  • Emperor’s manipulation
  • Watches rebel rfeet get massacred
  • Fight with Vader again
  • Almost turns to the dark side
  • Nearly killed by the Emperor
  • Vader kills the Emperor
  • Vader dies
  • Barely escapes the Death Star II before it blows up and many more Imperials die

Prior to The Force Awakens

  • Learns all of Jedi history
  • Starts academy
  • Ben starts to turn
    • Almost kills him
  • Ben kills most students and turns others
    • Becomes essentially new Vader
    • Luke has overwhelming guilt and sense of responsibility

Despite being highly divisive and controversial, the depiction of Luke Skywalker that we see in The Last Jedi is a clear representation of C-PTSD. He’s lost his faith in the Jedi and disconnected himself from the Force, and he has intense despair and guilt to the point that his concept of self is distorted. He moved to an uncharted world to hide in shame until his death, has flashbacks to his last encounter with Ben Solo, avoids any triggers to his past, shows distrust/hypervigilance of Rey, shows strong emotional dysregulation (alternating wildly between anger, shame, and sadness), and since he is the perpetrator in the final encounter with Ben Solo (from a certain point of view), he maintains distorted perceptions of himself that he struggles with greatly.

Luke’s behavior in The Last Jedi was so unpopular that a great many voices cried out all over the internet, and two years later they continue to let their anger lead to hate and suffering. Regardless, his behavior was largely clinically consistent with what a person who has encountered the variety and intensity of traumas he has may demonstrate.

In order to better understand how people heal and move on from trauma, I’m going to briefly explain one idea about its origin, the Adaptive Processing Network (APN) Theory from EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). According to this model, developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, the brain has an adaptive storage system for filing and accessing processed and stored memories, much like RAM in a computer. As we sleep, the brain reorganizes the experiences of the day and files away the information into the APN in a way that allows us to access it at random, and uses it to inform us of how to respond to future situations.

However, before an experience reaches this part of the memory in the brain, it must be processed first. Before the information is processed, it’s stored in the active memory, and the more emotional charge the information has when it’s stored, the more vividly we remember it. When a memory is stored with as much emotional “charge” as a trauma gets stored with, that can cause a blockage in the processing system that prevents the memory moving from active memory to storage. Much like putting too much paper into a shredder and having it jam, the intensity of that experience is blocking the brain’s natural healing processes from taking place.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and EMDR (as well as other modalities) work to decrease the emotional charge of a situation by completing a few objectives that allow the brain to process and store the memory of the traumatic incident in an adaptive, healthy way. This process allows us to learn from and remember what happened, without feeling like it’s happening again.

The first step is to increase a person’s belief that they can find calm again, and to teach coping skills to prove that. Luke, like others who have experienced a trauma, no longer believes he can have peace from his memories. Building relaxation techniques such as visualization, “safe/calm place” meditation, mindfulness, yoga, etc. can be useful to help a traumatized person realize they can find calm again, and do so on demand, even when feeling the effects of a traumatic memory getting triggered. Creating this space creates hope and belief that they can recover and won’t be forever damaged or “broken.”

The next step is to work to desensitize the person to the traumatic memories. Different approaches do this in different ways, but it would be essential for someone like Luke to be able to think about these incidents and feel calm, instead of being overwhelmed by waves of unpleasant emotions, like fear, guilt, and anger. This is the hardest part for most people, because it requires allowing yourself to access and re-experience the scariest parts of the event that have either consciously or unconsciously been avoided.

After achieving a desensitization to trauma, a few things need to happen in order to reach resolution. The brain, like the body, has a “dynamic drive towards health,” and once in the position to reprocess memories, a resolution can be reached. However, the negative thoughts trauma sufferers carry with them also need to be addressed. Utilizing techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and EMDR are all helpful for this.

The ultimate goal is to replace the distorted negative belief about oneself from a trauma with a more adaptive and healthy interpretation. Instead of Luke believing, “It’s all my fault that Ben turned,” a healthier viewpoint would be, “I did the best I could given the great evil I was up against.”

After achieving a point where that cognitive reframe seems believable, the next step is to be sure to resolve any lingering body-based feelings that exist, because trauma reactions are not only stored in our minds, but also in our bodies. It’s common for people to describe heaviness, tightness, or heat in parts of their body that were affected. In Luke’s case, we see him grab for his chest and stare at his mechanical hand.

I liken the process of recovering from trauma to having a dark tunnel you know you have to get through in order to move on, and you can ever so slightly see the light at the end, but you barely believe it’s real. Every time you enter the tunnel, you get part of the way through — just enough to reach the darkest, scariest point where the hardest feelings are.

People often turn back at that point to protect themselves from the pain, but then the memory and its feelings aren’t processed, so the pain is prolonged. They circle back to the mouth of the tunnel, going back through the dark they already went through, reaching a degree of acceptance with their trauma, but never feeling a resolution.

Therapy helps people find the desensitization that allows them to adjust to the disturbance of the painful memory, until it reaches a tolerable enough level that they can get through to the other side. Without that qualified help, people often end up seeing and feeling the same unpleasant memories. The Luke Skywalker that Rey meets has been stuck moving in and out of his own dark tunnel for some time. With therapeutic help, even someone who’s encountered all that Luke has can find a way through his darkness and into a place of peace with himself, the Force, and the world.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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