Marvel’s She-Hulk uses DBT to Deal with Rage

“When left unbridled, anger can leave us feeling totally out of control, just like the hulk.”

By Wendy Douglas, LCSW, MSPH
She-Hulk uses DBT Therapy

In the first episode of the new show She-Hulk on Disney Plus, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is recommended to Jen, the new she-hulk, as the best way to harness her rage.  It makes sense that the writers of She-Hulk might know about DBT. DBT has been rapidly gaining in popularity, partly because it has been well-researched over a period of decades, but also because it works!  DBT is the gold standard for helping people understand and tolerate big feelings and it was especially designed to help those with high emotional reactivity.

And it makes sense that today’s hulk might be a woman. After all, women have spent ages experiencing very legitimate reasons to be quite angry, while simultaneously being told that expressing this anger is unacceptable, unbecoming, or “bitchy”. Pairing She-Hulk and DBT couldn’t be timelier, especially as the sources of anger in women are far more socially sanctioned and understood.

Our “she-hulk” Jen, is a young, eager attorney who finds her career path suddenly disrupted when she is has to cope with being turned into a raging green monster.  Triggered by anger or fear, her hulk powers spontaneously emerge, leaving a terrifying path of damage in her wake.  Bruce Banner, her cousin (the OG Hulk) mentors her to control these outbursts so that she might have a shot at integrating back into the world. He highly recommends she use dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, to harness her out-of-control emotions.

As a DBT therapist, (after my jaw dropped after hearing the words DBT coming from my television) I couldn’t help but think that the metaphor of the hulk is so perfect.  I think we can all relate to the need to control a hulk-like rage within. Anger is a naturally occurring human emotion; rage is simply big anger. When left unbridled, anger can leave us feeling totally out of control, just like the hulk.  When we don’t have the skills to manage our anger and rage, we can end up damaging relationships, things, and sometimes even ourselves.

So how does DBT work at handling anger in real life?

Just like our she-hulk goes to an emotion regulation boot camp, we practice DBT in everyday life. In the show, Bruce tells Jen to start learning mindfulness, which is the practice of increasing our awareness and identifying when emotions occur.  Once we are aware, we want to give ourselves time to think so we can to choose what we do next. We know that anger hijacks our amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain, and it can take up to 3 minutes to calm down enough to think clearly.  (Notice that the hulk does turn human again if she waits long enough.) So DBT seeks to slow down that process which takes lots of practice!

Coping with rage is particularly tough, especially since your body is primed to react so quickly in physical ways. Once rage is activated in the body, your best shot at coping is to alter your body chemistry.  DBT uses extreme temperature (ie. cold shower) and/or exercise (i.e running round the block) to wait out the clock.

After a period of time (when we feel more human again) DBT gives us a decision tree: tolerate the problem, solve the problem, or change your attitude towards the problem, or make the decision worse (we don’t recommend this.) The truth is, sometimes we have to tolerate the urges to explode, which means allowing anger pass over us like a tidal wave in our body.  We call this emotional experiencing, essentially feeling without reacting.

Other times, we might harness that energy to be more constructive and solved the problem (effective action rather than destructive action.) Solving a problem can take many forms.  Sometimes, solving a problem means effectively asking for what we need from others, other times we need to say no to things.  A huge part of DBT is about standing up for one’s self and asking for what we need, while simultaneously tending to and maintaining our relationships. It’s a tricky thing to balance but you can imagine that getting our needs met goes a long way to overcome obstacles and lower our levels of anger.  And for women, this has always been fraught.  Using DBT skills to be more assertive and unblock the obstacles that bring on the anger in the first place is a great starting point.

Ultimately, anger and rage serve an important purpose. These emotions throw us into action, which is really important, especially when it’s justified. DBT teaches us to use our naturally occurring hulk-like powers to our benefit so that we can be more effective at getting our needs met.

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Radical Acceptance is a Skill Taught in our DBT Groups

If you are someone who is highly sensitive and struggles with emotion regulation, this group might be a good fit.  Also, if you have frequent interpersonal conflicts or simply want to be better at managing your relationships, DBT would be very helpful.

Wendy Douglas, LCSW, MSPH

Wendy Douglas, LCSW, MSPH

Wendy Douglas, LCSW, MSPH has been practicing DBT for 14 years. She was intensively trained in DBT at Harbor UCLA in 2006 while she worked at L.A. County's Edelman Westside Mental Health Clinic providing DBT services for more than seven years. She completed her Advanced DBT Training under Shari Manning and Kate Comtois in 2017. She holds a Master of Social Work from UCLA and a Master of Science in Public Health from Tulane University in New Orleans. Wendy founded San Fernando Valley DBT in 2012. She currently has private practice locations in Beverly Hills, Sherman Oaks, and Woodland Hills where she specializes in seeing teens and adults with emotion regulation disorders. Wendy is also a certified Anger Management Therapist. She currently sits on a DBT Team with a number of other experienced therapists and offers DBT trainings for therapists all over L.A.
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