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  • Writer's pictureJoss Burns

No laughing matter: Can humor be used to help treat anxiety? 

AI generated image of group of middle aged people laughing at an unseen speaker on stage

“I’m Dr. David Carbonell, I’m a psychologist. I work with people who are afraid of the things that tend not to happen.”

This is how Dr. Carbonell likes to introduce himself – his own personal elevator pitch. And it does a good job of setting the tone for his approach to therapy. Based in Chicago, this Clinical Psychologist and author has dedicated thirty years of his life to exploring the intersection between humor and anxiety. 

He even has his own improv troupe called Therapy Players, which regularly performs around the city. 

The link between humor and anxiety

There’s nothing funny about anxiety, as anyone who experienced it can tell you. It is characterized by a feeling of being restless or worried, not being able to concentrate, trouble sleeping, or even physical manifestations such as heart palpitations. 

Worst of all, the stimuli for anxiety attacks are generally illogical or at best, unlikely. Take for example the common problem where people have a fear of flying. We are all told that flying is one of the safest forms of transport, but knowing this is true will probably not alleviate anxiety.

But what happens when a person with a fear of flying lands safely? Generally, they will experience a sense of relief, breathe deeply, and be glad it’s over. 

In some cases, they may even laugh. Why is this?

Humor is tension and release

“The classical Freudian view of humor was that humor is the result of finding out, suddenly, that this terrible concern I had was misconceived,” explains Dr. Carbonell. “This trouble wasn’t trouble at all, and the result is humor. That’s what we do with anxiety disorders. People come in with terrible fears and phobias that, for the most part, aren’t really going to materialize for them.”

He goes on to explain that, as with the knowledge that flying is safe, people can’t trust this instinctively. They have to realize “this terrible thing that I thought was going to happen to me, it turns out that’s a facade.” 

In his work, Dr. Carbonell essentially reverse engineers this phenomenon, using humor as a means to bridge the gap between knowing and believing

As  Dr. Carbonell says, “When I first began working it was about finding ways to control the anxiety. Now it’s about working with the anxiety, rather than against it.”

Dr. Heckle and Mr. Smiles

So, is Dr. Carbonell a comedic therapist or a comedian? The answer, interestingly, is both – depending on what context you find him in. In his professional life, he employs humor as a means to accelerate progress and help patients. But when he performs with this improv troupe, the main focus is primarily on delivering a good show, with a heavy sprinkle of therapy-related gags. 

This wasn’t an accident, per say. In 1980, David Carbonell (as he was then) was looking for a career change. He took any number of “interest inventory tests” and interviewed people in other fields. All the results came back the same: he could either be a psychologist or a comedian. 

“A full time comedian… That amounts to driving a cab,” he quips. So, he enrolled in a psychology doctorate program in DePaul University in Chicago, where he formed his first improv group, The Freudian Slippers, which performed in the “Improv Olympics,” until the organization was sued by the real Olympics, and any medals won were presumably forfeit.

So what does it look like in each context?

Dr. Heckle: Healing through humor

In his daily practice, Dr. Carbonell is known for his use of humor to treat patients. When giving traditional presentations to peers, he’ll center those talks on how and when you can use humor in treatment. 

When talking holistically about his approach, Dr. Carbonnel says, “We work with the present day issue, we don’t look at the history of the problem. It helps recapitulate the things that were difficult in the past that led to this, and undo it.”

The role of laughter

But laughter on its own is well known to have healing benefits, even before it is employed to address anxiety long term. It decreases the levels of stress hormones, stimulates your muscles, heart, and lungs, and can even increase activity in parts of the brain’s reward system.

It can also be used to break the ice and put someone at ease. One example Dr. Carbonnel gives is of a woman in her mid 30s who was having terrible panic attacks. She comes to Dr. Carbonnel and says, “All my life, I’ve been worried about dying young.” 

He replies, “I think you’re too late, the best you can shoot for is middle age.” He recalls that there was a moment of shock, then a belly laugh. She couldn’t believe he said that. Surprise, release – the essence of humor.

Mr. Smiles: Psychologists on show

The shows, on the other hand, are primarily for entertainment. They are performances where the main focus is to make the audience laugh. 

When the Therapy Players were first formed, they put on “standard” improv shows, with an occasional psychology-based twist. However, the feedback was that people were coming specifically to see them for the therapy angle. Now, they inject much more of their professional insights and experiences into the show, with a typical one running 80-90 minutes in total, including a break for intermission. 

While the shows are for entertainment, they do offer a number of benefits for the audience. As Dr. Carbonell points out, it humanizes the psychologists, breaking down this idea of the stiff Freudian caricature to show that they are just people. 

People who can both make you feel comfortable and help you overcome a life-altering issue. And even if you aren’t suffering from anxiety, the shows are a lot of fun and can cheer you up after a long day.

Want to find out more about Dr. Carbonell?

Professional headshot of Dr. David Carbonell

Dr. Carbonnel has dedicated the last thirty years of his life to this – and he has a lot to show for it. Aside from his work with the Therapy Players, he has also written a number of books, been featured on podcasts, and has a number of self-help recommendations. 

All of this content can be found on his website

If you are suffering from anxiety, remember that you are not alone and that you can overcome it. By working with people like Dr. Carbonell or reaching out to any medical professional, you can put yourself on the right track to a healthier, happier, and freer life. 

Got any questions? Contact us at Mental Health of America Illinois and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.  


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