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Laugh When You’re Afraid

Like Buchwald and Williams, Colbert sought refuge from a painful childhood — when he was a young boy his two older brothers and his dad were killed when their commercial flight crashed — in making people laugh. “The beginning of my junior year, nobody knew me at school,” said Colbert. “A year later, I was voted Wittiest, and people were happy when I showed up at parties.”

Like many comedians, Colbert used his humor to process some of his inner turmoil. Eventually he began to lean on his faith as well, just as he and his mother had in the years following the plane crash. Colbert tells the story about a wintry day in Chicago, when he was walking down the street and a Gideon handed him a Bible. He flipped it open and read the Sermon on the Mount, the passage that I call the “chill out verse,” about the futility in worrying, in anxiety.

About the same time he was apprenticing with the comedy troupe Second City, when all of a sudden he burst into laughter while on-stage (and not on narcotics). He said this about that night, which is a wonderful, wonderful line: “Something burst that night, and I finally let go of the pretension of not wanting to be a fool.”

I love that so much because I can relate so well. For the longest time, I didn’t tell anyone about my depression, about the severity of my mood fluctuations, about wanting to die so much of the time. I took it all so seriously, as I was so scared by it all.

“My God, if anyone knew what went through my mind, they would think I’m a freak!” I thought. I became imprisoned by the task of “seeming normal,” by doing whatever I had to in order to fit in.

But then, like Colbert, that moment came …. in April of 2006, when I penned a short op-ed piece about how much I admired Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan for bowing out of Maryland’s gubernatorial race to treat his depression. I made fun of everything that I had done to try to get to sanity. What freedom I felt in finally articulating the truth and trying to laugh about some of it!

I’m not sure if some invisible spirit sprinkled me with fairy dust that day, but for the first time in my life, I truly didn’t care what anyone thought of me (probably because I had plummeted to a place where I was ready to take my own life … and as all person contemplating suicide know, you’re not exactly worried about what others think … you just want it to be over). To all of the uneducated folks out there (most of the US population), I might be a certified whackjob who should be embarrassed of her raw content. But that just doesn’t hold that much weight anymore. Yup. I’m damaged goods. But who isn’t? And who’s keeping track? (I don’t want to meet her.)

It all boils down to fear, and turning it into comedy, so that you can laugh instead of cry–which is how Colbert describes the lesson of the Sermon on the Mount:

Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time–of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.

Laugh When You’re Afraid

Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). Laugh When You’re Afraid. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 30 Oct 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.