Recent research shows most mental health issues are the result of a genetic predisposition coupled with a triggering event. The triggering event is subjective. In other words, neither you nor I have to agree that a given incident causes addiction, depression, or anxiety—it’s all relative. Clinically, “triggers” are also subjective. Best-case scenario: if you have a genetic predisposition, avoid the triggering event. The question is, can we avoid external pressures that may cause anxiety? To some degree yes, but truth be told, we don’t know how we will react to a situation until it happens. For instance, the clinical definition of trauma is not what you or I consider traumatic. Trauma is subjective. If I feel traumatized by a hangnail, clinically I am experiencing “trauma.” The best way to cope with anxiety pre or post triggering event is to shift our point of view (P.O.V.) and change the way we view the world. As a comedian, I take situations that scare me, make me angry or sad, and turn them into a joke. Shifting the way we view an event can change our experience of the event.
As a woman, it’s hard not to feel like there is an unspoken and horribly outdated contract when a man takes me out on a date—this defunct notion that the more money he spends on me, the more obligated I feel to have sex with him. Intellectually, I realize having sex is never an obligation; it is a subjective choice. Emotionally, I dread a possible negative reaction if sexual activity is not the outcome of our date. The act of dating triggers my anxiety, so I wrote a joke about it:
“A guy thinks if he picks us up in a nice car, buys us a meal, and takes us to a show he is actually upping his chances for getting laid. Let me bust this myth wide open, guys. We decide if you’re getting laid way before the date begins. We decide if you’re getting laid while we are putting our underwear on. If we’re wearing the granny panties up to our waist and the bra with the safety pin that holds the whole apparatus together we don’t care where you take us, what you feed us or what you drive us in, we are not having sex. But if we’re wearing that thong thing up our butt all evening, honey, you can take us to a tractor pull. You are getting screwed.”
Sexual tension is a common cause of anxiety. Through humor, I can shift my P.O.V. and remind myself that I am in control of the situation, which helps the experience seem less daunting.
Teaching Comedy as a Tool for Overcoming Anxiety
I believe we can ameliorate or eradicate anxiety and depression by shifting their worldview, otherwise known as an individual’s perspective of the world. I am teaching stand-up comedy to at-risk teenage boys. One of my students, let’s call him “B,” wrote a joke about Crips and Bloods, which are rival gangs in his neighborhood. His premise: ice cream trucks naming flavors that resonate with kids from his neighborhood. Hip Hopsicle, Red Dye #2 and Crips (blue). As a 16-year-old boy living in an area with high gang activity, B is threatened by gang members on a daily basis. Does his reality change after writing these jokes? No, but he doesn’t have to be overtaken by anxiety.
Another student, “D,” talks about “hating second dates because that’s when you have to meet the parents.” D talks about picking up his girlfriend only to have her father say she can’t go out with him. D knows full well it is a hard sell to have a father allow his precious daughter to go out with a self-proclaimed “poor black kid from the ghetto.” The anticipation of a negative experience is anxiety provoking. Shifting his P.O.V. by making it funny allows him to laugh at the snap judgments born out of prejudice. D is able to normalize his experience and put it in the past as a humorous event. D talks about the father yelling at him in Spanish. D has no idea what the father is saying, but everything sounds like he’s offering something to eat. Every word he hears sounds like food. In his joke, D has no idea he is being berated. All the venom spewed by his girlfriend’s father is lost on him.
The Science of Comedy and Anxiety
Simon Wiesenthal, Austrian writer and Holocaust survivor, once said, “Humor is the weapon of unarmed people: it helps people who are oppressed to smile at the situation that pains them.” We have emotional triggers that cause happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. Once those triggers are tripped we fall into patterns of behavior hoping to alleviate negative emotions. A trigger causing fear and anxiety may cause us to want to become violent. The more we experience anxiety the more we may use violence to provide a feeling of comfort. Neuropathways are literal ruts in our brains which make it easy for us to fall into a pattern of behavior. Changing the neuropathway is difficult. For example, in scary, anxiety provoking events we have to create a reward that trumps the comfort we feel when we physically defend ourselves. The reward of making someone laugh is more enjoyable than resorting to physical violence. Many comedians were bullied as kids and used humor as their defense mechanism. When people laugh it changes the experience for everyone. Pleasing chemicals are released in the brain such as Dopamine.
My work with at risk teenage boys is an ongoing process. As a pilot project, we have learned a lot. The good news: there is already a shift in the way these boys handle themselves. They are more playful and less anxious. Their anxiety triggers are still around them but they have learned ways to change their point of view.
Amy Alpine, Ph.D., is a Seattle-based psychotherapist specializing in addiction, anxiety, depression, sex, and relationships. She is a Diplomat of the American Board of Sexology and a Board Certified Counselor and Addiction Specialist. Dr. Alpine has experience in media as a talk show host, writer, and producer. Currently, she combines her interests by producing a documentary about comedy as a coping mechanism for at-risk teenage boys dealing with dangerous and emotional situations.