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Laughing at the Scary Stuff: Humor and Fear

We need a strong and healthy dose of focused humor in our lives every day.

When I think about the role of fear in everyday life, I think about how pervasive it is, and how little we consciously acknowledge it, even as fear shapes our thoughts and behaviors.

What does fear do? Fear fiddles with the phone until the call comes, fear hides jewelry in paper bags underneath the sink, fear rehearses every word of a conversation with a sister that ended coldly, fear counts calories, counts pennies, counts a partner’s nights away from home. Fear wonders about a child’s friends, a child’s grades, a child’s future.

Fear looks both ways, but still refuses to cross; fear looks twice and still doesn’t leap. Fear believes that the early worm gets caught by the bird, and sympathizes with the worm’s regret at being punctual. Fear usually arrives late, inevitably leaves early, and ends up never going out at all. Fear is the phantom hand on the back of the neck and the sound of a door opening downstairs when no one is coming home.

Fear does everything except go out and buy the groceries.

Anxiety and fear are paradoxically often a product—not a failure—of being both astute and perceptive: The most fearful are often those with the most imaginative intelligence. And while sometimes fear is our ally, it is often no more than a masked enemy.

Why, when presented with precisely the same social and psychological situations, do some people become angry, while others get scared?

Being frightened is an especially embarrassing emotion because what we fear often seems petty. Someone scared might be reprimanded by a companion and told, “Get a grip—anybody with sense can see that there’s nothing to worry about,” unless the fear is somehow politically correct. The big worries seem noble—fear of nuclear annihilation, of environmental destruction, of human suffering. But everyday, personal fears—fear of elevators, fear of embarrassment, fear of not fitting into last year’s bathing suit—creep around, coveting the nobility of genuine fears, but never quite making it.

Insecurity about the details of life causes excessive concern for them in the lives of many people who then permit their fears about the details to obscure genuine threats to their well-being. There are, for example, women with immaculate houses who refuse to go to the doctor for mammograms; they are apparently more worried about their bedspreads than their breasts, but surely this isn’t the case.

Displacement of fears from the actual to the imaginary leads not to reassurance, but to a deluded sense of protection from danger. Even when we know that our imagined fears typically outnumber our actual, we continue to displace our feelings of fear onto other, perhaps even more potentially destructive, emotions and behaviors. We can’t help it.

So what can we do? We can use humor to put our fears into perspective. Humor addresses the same issues as fear, not to dismiss them, but to strengthen our ability to confront them and then laugh them away from the door.

Humor is, of course, the one thing that fear cannot abide: Laughter banishes anxiety and can help replace fear. Laughter is a testament to courage, or at least a manifestation of the wish for it, and courage is stronger than fear. We need a strong and healthy dose of focused humor in our lives every day.

More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
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More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
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