What makes you anxious? What sets you on edge? What insidious worry is perpetually itching the back of your mind?
Regardless of how you experience anxiety, you are not alone in your suffering.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 40 million adults in the U.S. (18.1% of the population) are affected by anxiety disorders.
Risk factors include exposure to stressful or traumatic life events in childhood or early adulthood, environmental factors, brain chemistry, genetics, and personality.
We all experience occasional anxiety and distress when faced with experiences that pose potential threats. For those suffering from anxiety disorders, however, the distress is persistent and doesn’t leave them when the threat is removed.
If untreated, symptoms can interfere with relationships and job performance and can lead to the formation of other psychological disorders, including depression.
The good news is that whether you suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder or phobias, anxiety disorders are highly treatable.
Backed by extensive research that has consistently confirmed its efficacy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most widely-used therapy for anxiety disorders.
CBT is highly effective in helping people reframe how they perceive the sources of their anxiety and teaches them healthier ways of responding and behaving in the face of those triggers.
Many of the techniques intentionally employed by CBT therapists are naturally utilized by stand up comedians.
Both the therapist and the comedian openly examine the irrational thought processes that contribute to anxiety, both provide alternative ways of examining perceived threats, and both seek to replace the fear evoked by anxiety-inducing situations with more positive, healthy emotions.
When a comedian can get you to laugh at your fears, it’s a step toward controlling those fears rather continuing to allow them to control you.
According to New York stand up comedian Aparna Nancherla, having anxiety is “like having an edgy improv group in your brain that just needs a one-word suggestion to spin countless scenarios that no one’s comfortable with.”
In this bit on living with anxiety, Aparna, who’s appeared on Comedy Central, Conan, and was named one of the “10 Funniest Women in New York” by TimeOut NY, provides an excellent example of the psychological skills comedians employ to laugh at what would otherwise frighten and potentially debilitate them.
Nancherla isn’t simply taking a serious issue lightly. She isn’t making fun of her anxiety or of others who suffer from it. She’s facing it head-on, examining it, and finding reasons to laugh at it rather than let it keep her down.
High levels of anxiety have been linked to high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, decreased immune response and a number of other adverse health consequences.
Laughter researchers Dr. Lee Berk and Dr. Stanley Tan of Loma Linda University in California have found that laughter not only lifts our spirits, but reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and boosts the immune system, ultimately reducing our risk of heart disease and strokes.
Laughter also causes the release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter targeted by many popular antidepressants.
Finding a way to laugh at your fears can be a highly effective means of coping with overwhelming anxiety, taking control of the painful situations that induce it, and improving your overall health.
Although professional treatment is always recommended when anxiety is adversely impacting daily life, looking for humor in our circumstances is something we can do for ourselves anywhere and anytime.
Comedians like Aparna Nancherla, who share their own struggles with anxiety in its many forms, are excellent resources for self-care for those who are similarly suffering. They remind us to never let our fears have the last laugh.