I recently attended the American Association of Suicidology conference. Sounds like a bunch of laughs, right? It actually was. I’ve been attending this conference on suicide – a topic that can often wipe the smile off someone’s face – for many years. And this year, something really struck me.
The people that put this event together, the people who come to present their research and daily work in the field, the people who come to share their personal stories of pain and loss – these people laugh – they laugh a lot.
What is it about humour and our ability to laugh that helps us cope? How is it possible to even find humour in the most serious of events or devastating of feelings? As someone who has faced more than one harsh, unexpected life event but who also loves to laugh, I was curious enough to do a little research.
First, I asked some friends, all of who not so coincidentally appreciate a good laugh as well, how they think humour has helped them through tough times. For one friend, finding the humour in a past situation that brought her enormous embarrassment (let’s just say it involved losing her underwear) helps her restructure this memory in a more tolerable frame. ‘If it’s funny, I can remember it in a way that is OK.’
Another friend noted that if she didn’t allow her husband to crack jokes about what drives her up a wall, they would fight a heck of a lot more and he would probably turn to drinking again. A third friend shared that making himself laugh about situations that can cause him to feel anxious or depressed helps lessen the power of those gripping emotions.
I was happily surprised when I stumbled upon Laughter Online University, a professional and training resource centre that applies laughter as a tool for personal development and overall well-being. From a neuropsychological perspective, the concept makes sense.
As noted on the LOU website, research has shown that laughter activates the nucleus accumben, the part of the brain responsible for how we experience pleasure. The more we laugh, the more traffic flows in our reward pathways.
It’s no joke that therapeutic humour can have a positive impact on emotional, cognitive, psychological and social states, all components of our mental health. It gives us permission to come up for air from under the heaviness of suffering. It gives us hope that somehow we will be OK. Some specific ways that humour can work wonders in therapy include:
- Appropriate humour can break the ice when addressing sensitive topics in both individual and group psychotherapy, building the necessary comfort and rapport necessary to tackle what ails us.
- From a cognitive behavioural (CBT) angle, a shared laugh can help us break out of rigid thinking patterns by revealing the silliness of clinging to an extreme assumption, making room for more visible options that can lead to behavioural change.
- Though it does not minimise the significance of any traumatic event, humour has been shown to soften posttraumatic stress symptoms in some of the most severe situations.
Freudian theory identifies humour as a ‘mature defence mechanisms’ that can be employed to express difficult thoughts, uncomfortable feelings or painful memories in a way that makes room for happiness, taking the edge off the unpleasantness.
Life is full of pain – varying degrees of it, some of it unbearable no matter how many chuckles we can muster. But we still try to LOL at whatever it is that is plaguing us as a method of tolerating what we would really rather not.
When we can do this, we can separate ourselves from the anguish, even if it’s just for a moment. We then become an outside observer who is not owned by it. We can point to it, describe it, minimise it, exaggerate it, and laugh at it. And suddenly that pain doesn’t seem like the monster we thought it was.
Karen Carlucci is a licensed psychotherapist and professional coach in New York City specialising in helping people through the unexpected.