Typically, we take our worries very seriously. Which makes sense. They are worries, after all. They’re about negative, anxiety-provoking, scary things that hijack our attention.
Maybe you’ve already tried unsuccessfully to deal with your worrisome thoughts. Maybe you’ve tried arguing with them: No, that would never happen! That’s so stupid. Maybe you’ve tried saying or shouting Stop! Maybe you’ve journaled about your worries. Over and over.
But nothing seems to work. Or you’ve found a few helpful tools, and would like to add another one to your coping arsenal.
In the new book Outsmart Your Anxious Brain: 10 Simple Ways to Beat the Worry Trick, psychologist and anxiety expert David Carbonell, Ph.D, shares a lesser-known but powerful technique: humor.
Carbonell notes that if you’re worried you’re going to miss some important warning, ask yourself: “Does the problem exist now, in the world around me? If it does, is there anything I can do to change it now?”
If there isn’t, here are four humorous, highly effective strategies to try:
Worry in a foreign language. If you’re bilingual, worry in your weaker language. Or, use a foreign language dictionary to look up your worries. Or, use a combination of languages (e.g., Spanglish). Or, if you don’t know a single word of another language, how about pig Latin?
Pen a poem. Carbonell’s clients find it helpful to channel their worries into a simple haiku (which consists of three lines: one line has five syllables, the second has seven, and the third has five). One client created this haiku:
My boss will fire me
Lose home, wife, kids, all is lost
Can I wash your car?
Another option, he writes, is to create a limerick, a funny poem with five lines. Here’s another client’s example:
I’m going to get on that plane
Even though it will drive me insane.
I’ll kick down the door
Get thrown to the floor
And everyone will soon know my name
Compose a song. Create your own lyrics by naming your most fearful and outlandish worries. Then sing them silently or aloud using a popular tune. According to Carbonell, “The purpose of these songs is not to silence or banish your worrisome thoughts. Rather, it’s to give them room, to air them out and accept them in a playful way.”
Say “yes, and.” This is actually a rule in improvisational theater: Whatever a fellow actor says to you on stage, you go along with it and add another funny element to move the scene forward. Carbonell shares this example: “What if the boss gives me a poor evaluation? Yes, and he’ll probably hit on my wife too and steal her from me once I’ve been fired!”
It might seem strange, awkward, or downright ridiculous to you to use humor with serious worries. How can you be funny and playful about your job, health, or a loved one’s health?
But here’s the thing: Taking our worries too seriously, particularly after we’ve already taken healthy action and controlled the controllable, only spikes our stress. It leads to sleepless nights and irritable days. It siphons our energy and steals our joy.
Maybe you want to take a more lighthearted approach to your worries, but it doesn’t come naturally to you. That’s OK.
This is why we practice, and the above actionable strategies are an excellent place to start. You can even ask a friend to help. Is there anyone in your inner circle who’s hilarious and skilled at diminishing stressful situations?
Cultivating a playful attitude isn’t just important for coping with anxious, worrisome thoughts. It’s a powerful approach for navigating our lives.