Humor-izing Your Thoughts:
How humor can help you cope with anxiety and OCD
By Dr. Adir Pinchot
Coping humor is a powerful tool for dealing with distressing, painful emotions. The legendary Dr. Sigmund Freud went so far as to call humor the “highest” of “defense processes.” Current therapeutic approaches, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), utilize coping humor to help people manage symptoms of anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But what exactly is coping humor? How does it help with anxious ruminations and obsessive thoughts? And how can you add coping humor to your repertoire of coping skills?
What is coping humor?
Coping humor involves taking something that triggers painful or distressing emotions, and using it to create something funny. Think back, for a second, to participating in school plays as a child. You may recall feeling nervous and being told by an adult to picture everyone in the crowd naked. Although thinking about an auditorium full of naked teachers and parents from your childhood will likely cause you to cringe, as a child you probably found this imagined scene to be hilarious! This represents a classic example of using humor to cope with a stressful situation, a threatening external environment. In OCD and anxiety treatment, coping humor can be harnessed to help people cope, not just with external situations, but with their distressing internal experiences, namely, anxious thoughts, ruminations, and obsessions.
How does coping humor help with anxiety and OCD?
People suffering from OCD and/or anxiety disorders typically relate to distressing thoughts or images as though their content is true and meaningful. This is known as cognitive fusion. In anxiety, cognitive fusion means that a person views their anxious, worry thoughts (e.g., “I am going to fail this exam,” “I am going to say or do something embarrassing at this party,” “If I drive on the highway I will crash”) as evidence that the feared outcome will actually occur. Cognitive fusion in OCD means that individuals view intrusive thoughts (e.g., “Did I wash my hands well enough? Will I get someone sick?”) and images (e.g., of unknowingly running someone over with their car) as communicating something meaningful and true about who they are as a person, what will happen, or how they will behave.
OCD and anxiety disorders, in part, involve taking thoughts too seriously.
The intense emotions elicited by these thoughts often result in a person trying to neutralize or escape the distressing thoughts and the feelings they elicit through compulsions and avoidance behavior, which provide fleeting, short-term relief while adding fuel to the fire of fear.
Cognitive defusion is the act of mentally stepping back from these thoughts, looking at them, seeing them for what they really are (creations of our brain rather than cold hard facts!), and letting go of personal attachments to them so that they don’t jerk you around like an untrained dog on a leash. The goal of cognitive defusion is to enable a person to make space for their thoughts, to be mindful of them, and to sit with them without resorting to unhelpful, escape behaviors.
Coping humor represents a potent method of cognitive defusion. When a person takes a distressing thought and finds a way to make it funny, they are no longer relating to the thought as a literal and true fact. Instead, the thought becomes an idea that can be played with and used as a prop in the creation of a joke. In other words, when you reshape a thought into something funny, you no longer take it quite as seriously. This “humor-ization” of thoughts can make it easier to sit with your thoughts, instead of trying to suppress, neutralize, or escape them. This, ultimately, is the path to freeing oneself from being held captive by the distressing thoughts and obsessions of anxiety and OCD.
How to use coping humor?
Here are some practical suggestions for how to use humor to cope with anxious thoughts and obsessions:
- Verbalize your thoughts using silly voices. You can either use a funny voice or accent that you have perfected, or try one that you have not tried before. Worst case scenario: You are terrible at imitating that accent, which will give you another reason to laugh!
- Assign a comedic character to your anxious thoughts or obsessions. Assigning your thoughts a voice, physical attributes, and/or a whole character is a classic defusion technique. Think about a funny character from a movie or show that you can assign to your thoughts. If you’ve already assigned a serious or menacing character to the thoughts, change a detail about the character to make it funny (watch the following clip from Harry Potter for a beautiful demonstration of this technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PWKFyhJ2h4)
- Use over-exaggeration. Oftentimes distressing thoughts exaggerate the significance or likelihood of events and/or encourage people to engage in extreme behaviors. Over-exaggerating means to consider how you can intentionally “up the ante” by further exaggerating these thoughts or behavioral responses to the point that they become funny. For example, if you have intrusions about harming other people on the road and feel compelled to check constantly if you’ve harmed someone, perhaps imagine trying out an easier solution, like becoming a dictator so that you can make it illegal for anyone else to be on the road. Or if you get anxious that people are laughing at you when you walk by, imagine responding to their laughs by laughing obnoxiously and screaming “Ha! Looks like I got the last laugh!”
These are just a few ideas for how to add humor to your coping repertoire. Remember that everyone’s sense of humor is unique so try out different methods to figure out what tickles your funny bone. Finally, coping humor is a coping skill, not a substitute for treatment. Be cautious not to use humor as a means of avoidance, or to mistake it as a “magic pill” that can eliminate your intrusive thoughts or anxiety. As articulated above, coping humor is helpful when used to practice cognitive defusion, taking your thoughts less seriously, while engaging in healthy behaviors that align with your values. If you are unsure whether your use of humor is helping you cope, have a discussion about it with your therapist.