The Anxiety Behind the Humor

Sam TotmanSam Totman


How do you handle stress?

We recently shot a quick Instagram post asking the question, “How do you handle stress?” For many people, stress is relatively manageable in several ways. For instance, Dr. Kris Barnett, my counterpart in the Instagram post, releases stress through exercise and taking it out on a punching bag at home. Exercise is one of the number one ways people manage their stress. Other techniques include meditation and breathing. Having a quiet, restful moment is enough for some to reset physically and mentally, releasing the tension of stress and anxiety. Additionally, addressing one’s physical needs–like getting enough rest or eating a well-balanced diet–can alleviate stress.

I never considered myself to be an anxious person.

Up until a few years ago, I never considered myself to be an anxious person. On the contrary, I have a jovial personality. When life gets tense and stressful, I tend to use humor to defuse the situation. For example, during one of my business trips, I was abruptly awoken by a fire alarm in my hotel. I quickly got dressed and proceeded to join the large crowd that was making its way down the stairwells to safety outside the building. It was immediately apparent that some people felt a greater sense of urgency than me in the face of this threat; so much that they skipped getting dressed instead, chose hotel bathrobes. Picture everyone standing around, freezing. Large groups of people start hopping around in their bathrobes, trying to get warm (am I the only one that thinks this is a hilarious picture?). It was the middle of the night; everyone was groggy and grumpy after being unexpectantly stirred from their slumber, which seemed to me like the perfect time for jokes. Needless to say, it was a tough crowd. 

Humor is my go-to anxiety killer, which is why when Kris asked me in the Instagram post how I handle stress, I quickly responded, “I take drugs.” Now before you notify my HR department, let me explain. In part, I was trying to be funny, but it was a half-truth. I enjoy being the jester, but a few years back I started having anxiety attacks. They seem to appear out of nowhere, for no reason at all. In fact, I did not know what was happening to me. I had shortness of breath, my heart would race, and at times I felt like I might pass out. During these moments, I even found it difficult to carry on a conversation with my own wife. It was like my body was going into a flight-or-fight response, but there was no fight in me and nothing to fly from. Something was off. 

It was like my body was going into a flight-or-fight response, but there was no fight in me and nothing to fly from. Something was off. 

I was in the middle of my doctoral work, trying to keep my full-time job so I could take care of my family of five and complete my education. I went to the doctor, who quickly pointed out that I was at the end of my rope and my body was beginning to have a physical response to stress. This was new information for me; I had heard of people having anxiety attacks but never once considered that I would be a person who might experience something like that personally. I attempted to alleviate my stress on my own–apart from getting enough sleep (again, doctoral work)– but in the end, I needed medical assistance to help me address my anxiety issues.

Maybe you can relate.

You might find yourself in the same predicament. In fact, my hope is that there is someone reading this, possibly experiencing some of the same symptoms, who may not know that there are potential treatments and medical assistance to help you overcome debilitating anxiety. Truthfully, I do take medications for anxiety.  I do not know if I will always have to take it, or at some point, it will become unnecessary, but for now, it helps. For many, letting these symptoms go unchecked can have deadly consequences. If you find yourself in ministry and standard practices are not enough, talk with medical professionals who can assist you and help you become an overcomer.