There's something funny about the 'worry trick'

Woman laughing.
Laughing at your worries can help get you emotional distance from them.

Chronic worry can be awful, but it’s not nearly as awful if you learn to laugh at it, I suggested in last week's Southern Star. The column is reproduced below.


In his book The Worry Trick, psychologist and anxiety expert Dr Dave Carbonell relates how a client in her late 30s came to him seeking help with her severe health anxiety. People suffering from clinical health anxiety are extremely fearful of terrible illnesses. Hyper-vigilant, they are always looking for possible signs of illness, fearing they have a terrible disease the doctors have missed.


Anyway, in their first meeting, the woman told Carbonell: ‘All my life, I’ve been afraid I’ll die young’. It was probably too late, he replied; the earliest she could die now would be middle-aged. ‘After she got over the urge to slap me, she laughed really hard, and talked about all the worries she’d experienced that never came close to happening’, writes Carbonell. ‘Putting the funny part of her worry on the table like that helped her get some emotional distance from the upset she’d been feeling, and helped her tackle the worry trick more directly’.


The ‘worry trick’, to use Carbonell’s phrase, refers to the fact that worry convinces us there’s danger, tricking us into getting into fight-or-flight mode even when there’s no danger. He gives another example of how laughing at your worries can stop you getting sucked into a pointless and tiring internal battle. Another client frequently had panic attacks in public places. She knew panic attacks were harmless, but fretted they made her look like a ‘crazy person’. One of her fears was that her eyes would bug out and her hair would stand up, scaring everyone around her.

Instead of talking about the kinetic properties of hair, or whether this was possible, Carbonell asked her to keep a small mirror and a six-inch ruler with her at all times, so she could measure how high her hair stood the next time she got a panic attack. Days later, she got a panic attack in a waiting room. Scared, she ran out and then remembered she had to measure her hair. She ran into the nearest bathroom, pulled out her yellow ruler and gazed into the mirror. The absurdity of the situation then hit her, and she burst out laughing. That, says Carbonell, ‘was pretty much the end’ of that particular fear.



 ‘That’s an example of “humoring the fear”’, he writes. ‘It involves accepting the fear rather than arguing with it, and confronting the situation as concretely as possible. This often helps the funny part of the fear to emerge and can be much more powerful than logically and rationally trying to debate and change your thoughts’.


I’ve previously related in this column how the late cognitive therapist Dr Albert Ellis used to encourage his clients to laugh and sing about their problems. One such song was ‘Wild About Worry’ (‘Oh, I'm just wild about worry’, Ellis would sing, ‘And worry's wild about me!/ We're quite a twosome to make life gruesome/ And filled with anxiety!’). Similarly, Carbonell’s website contains a recording of him singing a verse to the tune of Johnny Cash’s Folson Prison Blues: ‘I feel my heart start racing/That's when I hold my breath/It makes me feel light-headed and/I start thinking about death/Oh, I think I will go crazy/And that my heart will burst/Now they say that’s never happened/Hah! I bet I’ll be the first’.


Visitors to the website love the songs, says Carbonell. ‘Hearing the thoughts in a song just makes it easier for them to find the funny part, the trick, and to step away from their more usual reaction of disgust and despair’.


The same point is made by anxiety and OCD expert Dr Steven Phillipson. ‘You can't really be anxious and find it funny at the same time’, he says. Choosing humour conveys to the brain that the threat is not real, that this is just another false alarm. 


There are many ways of managing worry, of course, but not using humour ‘is like drilling a tooth without local anaesthesia’, says Carbonell. ‘You can do it if you have to, but it's so much easier, and more comfortable, with humour.’