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.
Researchers have identified differences in the brains of people who fall into these categories. The avoidant types have significantly more activity in the prefrontal regions associated with reward and motivation when they encounter disturbing thoughts. The reward and motivation centers of the brain have been found to play a powerful role in suppressing negative thoughts.
When an anxiously attached person encounters negative or disturbing thoughts, the active brain regions are those associated with stress and emotional processing. The stress and emotional processing areas of the brain are the factories of anxiety. For these reasons, it is the anxiously-attached type of person who tends to have the most trouble reappraising the negative.
Researchers such as Ochsner and Gabrieli have found that we all have the capacity to build our reappraisal muscles with a little work. Humor is an effective and enjoyable way of building those muscles, and is an option that should be seriously considered by all who experience excessive anxiety.
Freud believed that laughter was a means of taking one’s mind off common stressors, acting as a kind of release valve for anxiety. It is no mere coincidence that the most common jokes are ones about the most common stressors: work, aging, death, relationship issues and sexual problems.
The following books are excellent sources of anxiety-alleviating laughs. Read them to open your tension release valve and feel the fear and worry within wilt away.
Humorous Books for Alleviating Anxiety:
The Complete Neurotic: The Anxious Person’s Guide to Life, by Charles A. Monagan
The Pleasure of My Company, by Steve Martin
Serious Laughter: Live a Happier, Healthier, More Productive Life, by Yvonne F. Conte and Anna Cerullo-Smith
Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler
Mr. Irresponsible’s Bad Advice: How to Rip the Lid Off Your Id and Live Happily Ever After, by Bill Barol