Comedian Justin Silver joins Ofosu and Leah to talk about how telling jokes about his anxiety has helped him manage it and to share some insightful tools the rest of us can use to turn our own anxieties into sources of strength.
You can further explore mental wellness with Ofosu and Leah on the Balance app, where they're the meditation coaches. Learn more at www.balanceapp.com, and all new members can enjoy a free first year.
Justin Silver is a New York City-based stand up comedian, author, and dog expert. He's the former host of CBS' Dogs in the City and founder of the non-profit Funny For Fido, where the country's top comedians perform to raise money for dog shelters. You can check out more of his work by following him on Instagram @iamjustinsilver or on his website iamjustinsilver.com
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OFOSU: Hey what’s up? I'm Ofosu Jones-Quartey.
LEAH: And I'm Leah Santa Cruz. We're the meditation coaches on the Balance app.
OFOSU: And this is our weekly show -- Well Balanced.
LEAH: So Ofosu, I want to talk about anxiety today. [OFOSU: Okay.] I know it's something we both dealt with and I know it's becoming even more widespread.
It's actually interesting to know that the World Health Organization mentioned that the global prevalence of anxiety has increased by 25%. And that was just in 2020 alone. [OFOSU: Wow.] Did something else happened in 2020 that would have caused that?
OFOSU: Um, I'm not sure I'll maybe the end of the Avengers franchise. I can't remember.
LEAH: So there's 40 million adults in the US that self purportedly have anxiety. So that's people who said, yes, I have anxiety my hands up. So you can imagine there's a lot more than that. So far more than 18% of the population.
OFOSU: Yeah. I mean, it makes sense. You and I have talked about our own struggles with anxiety.
I've been in my music - I've been trying to be more. Transparent about it. Like rap is not particularly the arena where people say I'm, I'm super anxious, but I mean, I've been trying to just be honest about that. Cause I think like you said, a lot of people might not be, self-reporting like I have this one line where I'm like, um, anxiety is terrible and mine is so unbearable that if I ever overcome it, it'll be a miracle.
LEAH: I feel like rap could be a place where people were more authentic though.
OFOSU: Yeah, no, I mean, it's supposed to be getting up on stage and being honest about the experience of anxiety is something that I think would be actually super helpful for people.
LEAH: Yeah. Well, on that note, I want to bring on someone who might be able to help us work through some practical ways we can handle our anxiety and maybe even think about it from, from a different perspective, because he's a comedian and he talks about his anxiety and his OCD and in his comedy act.
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JUSTIN: When I was a kid, I had the worst OCD. When I, when I used to get nervous, I used to go [making sounds].
And I was scared of the dark. So I used do it in the middle of the night, all night long. My parents thought there was a tree frog outside our house.
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LEAH: That's a clip of a standup routine from my friend, Justin Silver. He's a comedian in New York City as well as a dog whisperer and trainer. But I know he's dealt with anxiety and OCD, his whole life. And I wanted to ask him about the tools that he's developed to manage his anxiety. And also figure out how he got brave enough to talk about it on stage as a part of his standup routine.
So here he is Justin. Hello. It's so nice to have you here.
JUSTIN: Hi guys.
OFOSU: What’s up, Justin?
JUSTIN: Nice to see you. Nice to meet you, Ofosu. It's cool - as you're saying it to know that you're a rapper and I was thinking, as you were saying, I was like some of my favorite hip hop artists, what made them so great was their vulnerability. Like Biggie and Eminem and more recently and Nas, it's sort of like the vulnerability and the difficulty of all their struggles.
So it was cool to hear you say that.
OFOSU: Absolutely. Absolutely. Those are some of my favorite artists as well. And it's just for those exact reasons, too.
LEAH: Yeah. I think it's so important when people are vulnerable and share like what's their true experience because I mean, we're all so different that our, our experiences could be very different from one another, but at the same time, the way that one person experiences anxiety may show up very similar for other people.
And I think there's a lot of people who don't even recognize that they have anxiety. I mean, it's the most prevalent mental health issue that we're struggling with today. But I think a lot of people don't even realize that that's what's actually going on within me. I just know I don't feel good. Yeah.
Speaking of being vulnerable, we'd love to hear from you to share, like, how does anxiety show up for you in your life?
JUSTIN: I mean, every seven seconds through every window of my apartment and like, you know, I deal with anxiety. I'm like a high drive person as, you know, Leah. I mean, we go back and if you think about just our brains, just how we have this primal brain, that's always on the lookout for our instinctual needs. And then you stick it in this world that is so full of all these, you know, the complex world we live in, which is only getting more complex with the internet and devices. It's like, it's hard for that primal brain to process all that information. And so how are people not, if you have a pulse, how are you not jittery?
How are you managing all that? And this is a particularly difficult time because as you guys can see, but listeners can’t, I'm sitting here with a broken leg and my lifestyle is so mobile from running around different parts of the country and sometimes the world to perform to the work that I do with dogs, which involves me being on my feet.
The last thing I ever want to do is sit around and zone out to a movie. Like I don't do that. And this has been one of the most trying times in my life, because it's like, there's a time where sitting around and thinking, or being too quiet is no good. Especially if you're an outgoing person, like I need people around me.
I need things around me, and I also need dogs around me and because I can't take care of like my big boy Brutus right now, he's not here. He's not here right now. So this has been incredibly difficult. So it was a perfect time for me to talk to you all about this.
LEAH: So let's say there is someone that didn't realize they have anxiety, but that's really what the struggle is.
Can you give us like an example for yourself?
JUSTIN: I don't know anybody who doesn't have anxiety, so I wouldn't be able to advise anybody was like, nah, I'm just, I'm just chilling all day.
Um, you know, for me, it's like, it's the nagging voice in my head that's either pushing me or driving me. It's this internal voice of discomfort. And then a feeling like a pang in my stomach, an unsettled feeling and a jitteryness. And it's that physical feeling and, you know, the body follows the mind and then the mind follows the body.
And so that physical feeling will cause thoughts in my head. And then those thoughts in my head start, you know, if I start engaging with them too much, then it enhances that physical feeling. You know, I don't, I don't know anybody who wouldn't identify with that. I don't think.
OFOSU: Reminds me of a line from Buckshot.
‘The mind tricks, the body, body thinks the mind is crazy’, but the process can be really, really nerve wracking. And I mean, I just had a, a pretty big show in Denver and, um, as soon as I touched down, I got to work out. I was really trying to hedge and mitigate against whatever anxiety might arise from being in a new place and being, you know, and the size of the event and all that other stuff.
Once I'm on stage, I'm usually fine. But sometimes the lead up can be a real pain. So anxiety shows up for me with like tension headaches and ruminating thoughts and just generally feeling very unpleasant. And I found myself like in that space and everything, I tried all my resourcing things and all, even like my go-to mindfulness stuff, none of it was working.
And I really hadn't identified that I was feeling anxious and that the anxiety was connected to really wanting this pretty big moment to go well. And so like, once I found the center of it, I was like, oh, I'm just wanting many, many things. And it's all created a traffic jam inside me. And it's just created this anxious moment, but yeah, I totally relate.
You know, when you're in motion and anxiety can kind of creep in insidiously. I'm curious, Justin, um, what made you start talking about your mental health in your comedy?
JUSTIN: I'll tell you that. Harking back to what you were just saying. We do the same thing. And I always find that like, if I don't feel that revved up nervous feeling before shows or events, I'm like this, one's not going to be that great.
Because in a way it's sort of like the engine is humming, ready to go. And like you said, sometimes it gets unmanageable. This is for me. And I'll answer that question. He's like, there's things that I need to do in the middle. That like get me straight and get the serotonin going. And like the first thing is like the reason I have animals all the time is cause no matter how I’m feel they have to go out in the morning. So it's like people have to do their mental health walks. And if you have a dog in the house, especially like I have an 80 pound pit bull, who's like, you know, there's no peeing on a pad in this house. It's like having to get him up and having to get him out and move myself around.
Like, that's the first thing. And then it's like, exercise is so important to me. And even with this busted leg, like I've been in the gym every day, in fact, longer than I normally am because those physical things are such an anchor to wellbeing. And so many times I'm like, I don't want to get out of bed. I don't want to go to the gym.
And then I never regret that I went. And especially when I'm traveling and I have to go perform. Once I'm in like the flow state, like you were just saying like onstage and that the tires can start moving because the engine wants it to, then I get into this like really, really peaceful place, even though I'm doing something that's very loud and there's lights on me and there's crowds.
It's like, but still at the same time, like I'm, I'm in my zone. And in my element, I'm sure Les experiences the same thing. When, when, when she's leading a meditation or a retreat. For me, finding your voice in comedy is sort of it's, you're expressing who you are. And comedy is such a beautiful thing because just like music and just like teaching meditation, it's like, these are all like honest performances.
And when I say performance, I don't mean like a fake show. I mean, like, these are all, this is all of us like expressing art and showing the world who we are when you're doing that. There's this communication happening with an audience.
And people go to listen to music or go to a meditation retreat or go to comedy cause they want to, they want to feel something and they don't want to feel bad. They want to feel either better about what they're going through. They want to identify with the artist. And for me, I remember I was talking about so much nonsensical crap, like stuff that just didn't matter.
And I can't stand comedy where it's like, you know, stop signs - what's up with those. Like I can't stand that. I always like the, I like people who like open their soul up and reveal it. And for me, I remember I was with a friend of mine. We were having a Christmas together and we called my step-mom and that joke, interestingly enough, where you heard me do it, it's like, I hadn't done that joke for years, but I was like, let me whip this one out again.
And I started telling him about like the twitches I had when I was a kid. And he's like, dude, this is so funny. How are you not talking about this stuff on stage? I was like, I don't know how to make this funny, because to me it was just like pointing to the footprints of like where I walked into trauma.
Does that make sense? But that's the stuff that's always really funny. And the healing part of any kind of performance and comedies like that, because you know, you open up and you share your pain, which makes people feel better about their pain. And then you feel good about doing it. And then like the end result, when done well, when done skillfully is laughter and like you can't be laughing about something and bummed out about it at the same time.
And so for me, I've always sort of, I've always looked up to comics who were self-effacing and very honest and very human. Like the humanness of it is what, that's, what art is made of. It's made of our humanity.
LEAH: So I like the point that you just made that you can't, you can't be laughing at something and be bummed out about it at the same time.
It sounds like you know, using humor as like a mindset shift. And then earlier you mentioned, you know, if you, if you don't have that nervousness, that feeling in your body, that anxiety shows up as then, you know, it's not going to be a good show. So it's the almost sounds like you're putting a twist on this experience of anxiety for yourself and sort of turning it into a power.
I'm curious, like what tools are you using? Is that one of them, or do you have other tools that have helped you with your own anxiety?
JUSTIN: That's the biggest one. And then the other thing is, like, I just said the things that I set up in my day: exercise, going on walks, being outside, spending time with my dogs and then like, this is an interesting one.
You know, we all have these voices in our heads, right? But like, self-talk, especially now when I'm like injured and hurt and you know, I've talked to Leah personally about this - like, you know, not in this forum. The struggles that I've gone through with like, and you must know this as, you know, as a performer - the struggles that you go through with careers that don't feel like they are - when it feels like the world is not like embracing you in a way, and you're not getting the things that you want. And there's like that little kid in you, which is the one that makes that art wants to feel loved and nurtured and supported.
Something's got to go in there and like give you this internal hug and I'm like, what does that part of me need to hear right now? And sometimes it's like, it needs to feel love and support. It needs to be reminded of like who I am and why I love him. I talked to myself in this where I'm like, this is, this is what this part of me needs to hear right now.
OFOSU: I mean you're 100% speaking my language. Like the positive self-talk piece, it can sound like a woo woo thing. But to me, it is the way that's become the foundation of my teaching. That's become the foundation of pretty much everything. Want to share with everybody is like, please speak to yourself the way that you would speak to a dear friend or a loved one.
And that exact inquiry, like go to the place where that's a little achy right now. And what do you need to hear, you know, and build the capacity to offer that to yourself. So I'm just highlighting that. I feel validated in hearing your process and knowing that hey a fellow performer is using this same sort of thing, but I don't think that it's limited to people who get on stage. I think this is something that literally every human being on the planet ought to be engaging in is speaking to themselves more kindly, like Leah was saying earlier. Some people don't even know that they're experiencing anxiety, but they know that they don't feel good.
And in those moments where you're not feeling good, that's the moment to bring in the healthy twin to bring you that positive self-talk to bring in, you know what I call like the inner friends.
JUSTIN: Yeah, yeah. Inner friend, healthy twin, like yeah. You know, it's interesting. I do so much work with dogs and so many people like, they call me and they're like, I don't know what to do.
They they're like, I don't know what to do with this circumstance. And a lot of times what people do is they call in an expert or throw money at problems. Cause they're like, fix this for me. And I've noticed so much that whenever I’m working with people and animals,I can sort of just zone in on them and figure out like what they need at that moment.
And animals are great cause they're very much like that kind of kid inside of us, but they have no filter. They don't have a social mask. They're trying to find the shortest distance to get what they want. And if it's like, you know, barking, like crazy at that table to get that piece of food or pulling on you was going to get me that, then they're doing that.
I'll be really honest with you guys if sometimes I can't access that little kid inside of me, that's feeling, you know, just off or sad or negative or, or anxious - I'll think of like my pit bull, Brutus, and I'll always think of like my love for those animals.
I'm like, well, how would I treat myself if I were like a puppy right now? And while I'm going through this, like, this has been, I'm telling you, dude, this has been like a really, really difficult time for me personally, because of the lack of physical things that I do to like take care of myself. But I put this little picture on my phone of me when I was three, that way, when I look at this phone, instead of doing all the things that I would do to distract myself from the anxiety, I feel I'm like, oh, there's that little kid in there that probably that might need something. And so it's just been reminding me to like slow down and put my hand on my chest, take an extra breath.
You know what I'm saying? And like the self care that we need, you know, it's gotta, it's gotta come from us.
LEAH: You know, I think that's a really powerful practice that you just created for yourself that I haven't heard someone do is like find a younger version photo of yourself and put it somewhere where you can see it prominently, like in your case, on the phone.
And then just be a reminder to yourself to be kind to you. Cause like, what would you say to that little child? I love that. Thanks Justin. Like, it's been really nice to hear your story and to share in your experience, because I think it's something, um, we relate to, I relate to.
OFOSU:I feel like we need to have you back and do a deep dive on your work with animals. Let's do a part two about that. [JUSTIN: I'd love that] but it's been really, really cool to talk with you, Justin, and get to know you. Thank you so much.
JUSTIN: I appreciate you guys having me super nice to meet you my man.
OFOSU: For sure. It's going to continue.
JUSTIN: We'll take care guys.
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OFOSU: Well, I thought that was a really cool interview and, um, I can only imagine what it must be like for people in the audience when they're listening to Justin's stand up. Cause just me listening to him talk. I was like, oh, I can totally relate. And, and not, he, wasn't only funny he had like, he was impactful.
LEAH: And I really appreciated the little tidbits, the takeaways that I gathered from it. Especially with the picture of the inner child, like that being that child within you and looking at that, I think that's a really powerful thing that I want to do. Um, also I just really felt that the whole mindset shift of going, oh, you know, I'm feeling a little anxious.
This means this is going to work out. This means I care. And so maybe that little bit of fear that drives the anxiety, um, can be thought of as a powerful thing is a good thing to show that like we care and this is meaningful. And to let it empower us.
OFOSU: I think it's a revolutionary mindset shift, as you said.
And you've mentioned this in the past, like that, that there's actually no discernible difference between anxiety and excitement.
LEAH: Physiologically the difference is that we put a negative connotation on anxiety. Like we, we spin it as like a negative thing, whereas excitement, we kind of think of as a positive thing. I think what you guys were discussing here and what the biggest takeaways for me is just coming back to that point again, that, you know, using it as the fuel for us. Yeah. Like seeing it as like, oh, I'm excited. I'm energized. It's like, okay, I have some tension, a pit pit in the stomach, or a tightness in my chest, but to recognize those sensations aren't necessarily bad quote.
Can be thought of as like fuel as power.
OFOSU: Yeah. I mean, it is possible to be empowered by those moments. And I think the gateway to get there is just like what Justin was saying, treating ourselves with kindness, going to the place that hurts and then offering that kind voice and nurturing ourselves through those difficult moments.
And then finding that what's really, there is energy. And then we can apply that in ways that are helpful and not harmful.
LEAH: I think meditation is the perfect place to do that in personally.
OFOSU: I totally agree.
LEAH: If I'm being biased here.
OFOSU: Yeah. I think we're allowed to be biased, you know, so I had such a great time hanging out with you Leah.
Let's do this again.
LEAH: Same, same.
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LEAH: Thank you friends for listening for joining us.
OFOSU: You know, we come out with another episode every Monday, so subscribe or follow on whatever podcast app you use to get notified when that goes live. And until then, please be kind to yourself and we'll see you soon. Bye.
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