We’ve entered uncharted territory. With everything going on in the world, it can be easy to dodge deeply reflecting on your mental health. Who has the time with all the vegging on the couch and running from Zoom to Zoom? But given more time alone with our thoughts and away from people, now is the best time to reflect. I’ve found myself, surprisingly, in good spirits and found that what I’ve learned both in performing and teaching standup comedy has given me tools to navigate the darker and unseemly aspects of life. I can stay in good humor. As I teach my students, standup comedy can help you better manage your mental health.
Depression and anxiety are as popular in comedy as banana peels and rimshots. I believe this is because, by default, comedians are optimists. That’s probably controversial. But what else would draw someone to an art form that literally is finding the silver lining to the darkest of subjects? But as we all know, darkness can be all-consuming. There are many reasons comedians struggle with depression, anxiety, and addiction. The toxicity in the scene, the alienation of seeing the world differently, and the belief you need to hold onto depression or anxiety to retain your edge can all play a factor. Yet, the skills of standup comedy are primed for the proper management of your mental health. Here’s how it can help.
1. Cognitive Reframing
Cognitive reframing is when we mentally readjust the way we see the world, past experiences, and perspectives. We shift how we think and feel about something by shifting how we look at it. As I tell my students, “as we edit our jokes, we edit our thoughts.” Comedians tell stories as we wished they’d happen. We say what we wish we had said. We find offbeat ways to look at our frustrations, traumas, and triggers. As we find the humor, heavy emotions no longer weigh on us as much.
2. Making Mental and Emotional Space
In a perfect world, we’d be able to shut ourselves in and be able to give our brain time to contemplate. We get so much stimuli in the form of notifications, emails, or shows we binge-watch. We need time to process everything. The bright side of standup is it helps make the mental and emotional space. As we talk about random things like how our in-laws are like “Star Wars” villains or how dating in L.A. is like “The Hunger Games,” we vent our emotional frustrations, air out some of our dirty laundry, and make space in our brains and hearts. We’re able to laugh off some of our more negative emotions to make space for positive ones. We’re able to purge all the extraneous thoughts intentionally. All while making people laugh.
3. Clearing Emotional Debt
When we don’t fully process or feel our emotions, we get into emotional debt. They can enter into our brain as limiting, looping, or toxic thoughts. They can weigh on our hearts and present as a negative attitude or penchant for overreaction. Let’s slow that last one down, over...reaction. The reaction is normal, it’s just overloaded emotion. This debt can present in our body in unwanted body tension, weight, or even disease. It can even show up in our lives as literal debt. But never forget, this country was founded by Puritans. So it’s not like expressing ourselves is the norm. Standup though gives us a chance to process everything. We can yell, scream, and holler about the things that make us mad, glad, and sad. Releasing those emotions helps alleviate some of our debt. But these jokes don’t just lighten our loads they help our audience as well. We all restore our sense of levity.
4. Finding Levity
Levity is our ability to laugh at things. It’s the ability to not be so weighed down by seriousness. Personally, I find when I’m not able to find the levity and make and receive jokes, I realize I’m processing heavy or complex emotions. Standup comedy brings levity. We pivot the perspective and challenge misguided ideologies and ironclad thoughts. Comedians will often find levity in the darkest and heaviest of subjects. But the overall goal is for this emotional, mental, or spiritual strength to help them better navigate life. We can all afford to ask ourselves why we’re struggling if we have not found levity.
5. Learning to be Present
Standup comedy requires that you be quick. You need to be able to both be ready to tell your jokes, do it effortlessly, and also be ready to handle what happens. What happens when people heckle, laugh, or react unexpectedly. Standup comics must be mentally, emotionally, and physically present because if they aren’t, the audience will tell.
Not every comedian is the paragon of mental health, but standing in front of people speaking your truth can be profoundly reaffirming. Not to mention that laughter truly is the best medicine. So while this doesn’t mean everyone needs to start touring the country, we can all look to comedians for tools and tactics for keeping it together. And of course if you find the tools you have are not enough and you need additional help, consider seeking out a therapist.
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