My Two-Word Response to Daily Anxiety
I never knew what Bill would want to work on in our monthly call. Unlike some people who consult me for specific patterns of depression or other life issues, Bill just wanted to process whatever joys and difficulties were moving through him. So when I asked him, “Where do you want to jump into it today?” he said, “I’m having anxiety about something every day.”
After listening for a while about the kinds of things that were triggering his anxiety, I said, “Bill, I’ve got two words for you regarding you having anxiety about something every day.”
“OK,” he said, “lay them on me.”
“Me too,” I said.
“You have anxiety every day?” he asked.
“Of course I do,” I said, “it’s part of being human.”
In my line of work, my response is called “universalizing”—addressing a problem people believe is a private, singular struggle by reminding them that it’s a universal part of the human experience. It wasn’t just a technique I laid on him, because it was the truth. I do experience anxiety every day.
Our conversation carried on for a while until something he said reminded me of a joke about a rhinoceros. In my training, using humor was often frowned on because tears were viewed as the Holy Grail of a good therapy session. I once, however, asked a well-known expert in trauma if she was as funny with her patients as she was leading our training. She said, “Absolutely, nobody needs more help getting to their traumatic responses one more time. Humor shows them it’s possible to go down a different path.” After that, I’ve allowed humor into therapy sessions wherever it seems to fit. It communicates to people that we can get into the down-deep intense stuff, but we can also come up for air.
“How do you stop a rhino from charging?” I asked Bill.
He said, “I have no idea,” and I said, “You take away it’s charge card.”
That joke flowed into the only other one I know that has anything to do with a rhinoceros.
“What do you get when you cross a rhinoceros and an elephant?” I asked.
Bill took a couple of guesses and said, “Well, what is it?”
“Elephino,” I said.
After this brief shared-mirth interlude we spent a while talking about the kind of lifelong mindfulness practice it takes to deal with life’s inevitable daily anxieties. I told Bill about a man I had worked with years ago who had attempted suicide because he could not rid himself of anxiety. Concerned that he was still a suicide risk because he seemed fixated that he still did not have the right drug combination to make his life anxiety-free, I recommended to his wife that she arrange to have him spend a month at an intensive rehabilitation center at a cost of $50,000. Several weeks later I asked him what he had learned when he came out of that world-class program. “They taught me that anxiety is part of life for everyone and I need to practice mindfulness daily to accept life as it is and even accept anxiety rather than try to be rid of every last bit of it,” he said.
Swinging back to humor, I asked Bill, “Why am I charging you my usual hourly fee for this call when I’m giving you the same thing this other guy learned for $50,000? Bill, if I send you an invoice for $50,000 for today’s call, will you pay it?”
Hearing the playful tone in my voice, he hesitated before responding: “Sure, I’ll pay it, but I’d want a deduction for the rhino jokes.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll send the bill. $50,000 for the call, and a $49,800 deduction for the rhino jokes.”
Closing our time together, I told him about theologian Karl Barth’s words: “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” We agreed that it would be great, because anxiety is a part of every day, if laughter could be too.
- by Kevin Anderson PhD, Psychotherapist