In a room full of people, your head is as light as a balloon. Your palms are sweaty, and your breathing is irregular. “Did I just forget how to breathe?” You ask yourself. “That cannot be!” But, the thing is, you are unable to think clearly as your chest tightens. You can hear your heart beating. You get hot; maybe you shake. You want to run away, but your legs are stuck, and so are you.
If you are familiar with this hypothetical scenario, you may be one of the 40 million Americans who struggle with an anxiety disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health describes anxiety as one of the most common mental disorders experienced by adults, affecting 18.1 percent of the U.S. population. Women are 60 percent more likely than men to develop an anxiety disorder, according to the NIMH.
Occasional anxiety is completely normal, NIMH reports. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary fears and worries. Not only do people with anxiety disorders have trouble kicking their worries away, but they may also progressively deal with more and worse fears. These disorders arise from both genetic and environmental factors, NIMH reports.
“Some studies show that individuals can inherit a ‘propensity for the disorder,’ or what we would call ‘imperfections in the correct functioning of neurotransmitters’ – especially serotonin,” said Maria Navarra, a psychologist based out of Turin, Italy. “That means that, although the disorder is not hereditary, specific environmental, social or cultural conditions may activate symptoms in those who are predisposed to anxiety disorders.”
For Tommy Lucero, a 36-year-old stand-up comedian and chef from San Diego, Calif., social anxiety, a type of anxiety disorder, was the norm growing up. Lucero thought that being overwhelmingly nervous around fellow humans was universally true.
“It wasn’t until I hit my 20s that I realized I couldn’t force myself out my shell,” he said.
Lucero received a diagnosis of social anxiety – or social phobia – at age 14.
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association defines social anxiety as “a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way that will be embarrassing and humiliating.” The disorder impacts 15 million Americans, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says.
As a child and young adult, the simple act of being surrounded by people made Lucero sweat. He had panic attacks, and his chest hurt to the point of making it almost impossible to breathe.
Soon, he became a difficult teenager – “a public nuisance” – he said, and although his life experiences “were not so unique,” he spiraled into addiction to alcohol.
The ADAA reports that about 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder self-medicate with alcohol.
Years later, in 2010, Lucero reflected on the dangers of his lifestyle from a hospital bed, after an alcohol-related car accident gave him the push to start actively taking care of himself.
He began seeing a therapist, who suggested keeping a journal would be a proper way to deal with the million thoughts that populated his head. At the time, he was taking public speaking classes in college to attempt to overcome his fear of crowds.
“I started to go to [comedy] open mics. Some people thought I was funny and helped me writing jokes,” he said. “That helped me with the talking to a lot of people.”
What was happening surprised his therapist, who could not fully understand how someone who had dealt with social anxiety all his life could suddenly feel comfortable under the lights of a stage, facing crowds, trying to impress them with humor.
“I was able to relax in front of people on stage,” Lucero said. “When I do comedy – even the first time I did it – I never feel tense.”
Lucero’s relationship with comedy may seem odd, but, in 1975, psychotherapist and author Samuel S. Janus analyzed the interaction between humor as a release of tension and anxiety.
Interviewing 55 professional comedians, Janus found that there is a close relationship between the suffering comedians experience and the way audiences perceive them.
Besides, more recent studies show a connection between psychological wellbeing and humor, according to Navarra.
“Humor favors creativity, and it helps reduce tensions,” Navarra said. “Through humor, anxious comedians can take a distance from themselves and their uncomfortable reality, improving their ability to tolerate frustrations and rejections.”
But laughing and making others laugh also has positive effects on the body, Navarra continued, favoring the production of endorphins and distending muscles. It increases blood oxygenation and creates an electrical cerebral activity that is similar to the one your brain experiences when you are in charge of your own environment.
“This is linked to positive self-esteem and stress reduction, all things that are compromised by anxiety disorders,” Navarra said.
A San Diego native, 26-year-old stand-up comedian Jaime Gamblin saw her anxiety-induced fears take the best of her for the first time in 9th grade.
Sitting in her class, Gamblin awaited her turn to read during a “ping pong” reading game. She nervously scanned the room, trying to anticipate whether someone was going to call her name.
In 2013, Gamblin got diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Defined by the DSM-5 as “excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least six months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance),” generalized anxiety disorder affects 6.8 million Americans, according to the ADAA.
As years went by, Gamblin feared that any interaction she had with other people could make them feel uncomfortable.
“I never wanted to be the one having to order pizza as a kid,” Gamblin said. “Sometimes, I’d rather stab myself in the toe than having to talk to people.”
But a week before her 23rd birthday, Gamblin decided to set foot on stage and try stand-up comedy. She wishes she had tried that as a teenager. She said she had used humor to control her anxiety before.
“When you are anxious, you know exactly what is making you anxious, and why it shouldn’t,” she said. “And even if it’s ironic, since I hate public speaking, I choose to go on stage because I am stubborn about my anxiety.”
When she is on stage, she controls the crowd with improvisation and confidence. She interacts with her audience and creates a point of contact.
Yet, five months ago, her health got in the way, she said, and on top of that, she had been feeling down for a while. The connection was not there anymore. The fun was not there anymore.
“I wasn’t feeling clever on stage,” she said. “I didn’t have that blissful moment of pure creativity. I wasn’t being a comic.”
As her link to people progressively thinned, it stripped away her identity. It destroyed one of her few sources of certainty: when everything else seemed meaningless or overwhelming, being funny could be her anchor.
Gamblin was experiencing typical signs of depression, a condition that can go hand in hand with anxiety, according to the ADAA.
“I woke up to my dog licking my face,” she said during her interview, on a sunny and warm March afternoon. “Usually, I don’t get out of the house at all unless I go to the dog park.”
With support coming from family and friends, and with the help of medications, Gamblin is rediscovering her worth, striving to push those fears away. She is almost ready to go back on stage, she said. She knows she will soon be ready to go back on stage.