Laugh in the Face of Anxiety
Anxiety occasionally visits us all. When we give an important presentation, take a test, go on a first date or walk down a dark alley our minds and bodies naturally respond by going on high alert and attuning to the potential dangers and risks of these endeavors.
A healthy amount of anxiety prevents us from falling victim to those dangers and risks. Choosing not to go down that dark alley could be a life-saving response. But an excessive amount of anxiety can increase our risk of suffering negative consequences.
The millions of people who suffer from social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders experience debilitating degrees of anxiety and fear that can significantly limit their functioning in daily life. The natural instincts designed to help protect them from the dangers they fear have become sources of danger themselves.
Humor is a useful tool for the anxious to use to gain a new and more clear perspective on their worries. Humor has the power to transform the frightening into the funny through the reappraisal process. Conscious reappraisal of a situation has a direct impact on our brain and its functioning.
John Gabrieli and other researchers at Columbia University and Stanford studied the power of reappraisal by having subjects look at a picture of a patient in a hospital bed and imagine themselves as the patient. They were instructed to imagine that they, as this patient, had been ill for a long time and had little chance of ever recovering. The researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to measure the brain activity of the subjects while they mentally immersed themselves in the pain and misery of the patient, and found an increase in activity in the left amygdala region.
The amygdala is responsible for the processing of negative emotions, but the left amygdala becomes highly active when one visualizes fear-inducing stimuli. Gabrieli then instructed the subjects to imagine that the person in the photo was actually just more tired than ill and that they were well on their way to recovery. The fMRI scans now showed a decrease in activity in the amygdala of subjects and an increase in activity in the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is responsible for higher mental functions such as planning and decision-making. Gabrieli said, “What we’re seeing is the effect on the brain of reappraisal, and reappraisal is something we do every day whenever we are faced with an emotionally disturbing or stressful situation.”
Reappraisal works in both directions and can make a situation worse or better depending on whether one focuses the positive aspects or the negative. Gabrieli’s collaborator, Kevin Ochsner, echoed this idea when he said, “This strategy of cognitive reappraisal is based on the idea that what makes us emotional is not the situation we are in, but the way we think about the situation.”
Researchers have found that a person’s ability to reappraise negative situations so that they have less of a negative impact is related to their attachment style. At one end of the spectrum are avoidant styles in which people are aloof and tend to be uncomfortable in intimate relationships. At the other end of the spectrum are the anxious attachment styles in which people are constantly seeking closeness and become extremely uneasy when they perceive that others don’t share their interest. The anxiously-attached experience more difficulty than the avoidantly-attached in letting go of negative thoughts and reappraising negative situations.