Why we use humour to cope during tough times

When we're struggling to get through difficult situations it's natural to use laughter as a coping mechanism, says Sas Petherick

Woman laughing

The impact of Covid-19 is no laughing matter. We have been thrown into a sudden and collective experience of trauma with every aspect of our lives impacted, and no one knows yet for how long.

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The rawness of our collective fear and sadness, the oddly communal aspect of self-isolation, combined with freely available technology, has created the perfect conditions for unprecedented viral (ahem) humour.

Within hours of lockdown Gloria Gaynor posted a video of her washing her hands to the tune of her hit ‘I will survive’. Hundreds of memes compared how we imagined how we would dress for the apocalypse (mostly Hunger Games/Xena Warrior Princess) vs how we are actually dressed for the apocalypse (mostly pyjamas). Someone on Twitter described the chief medical and scientific officers who flank Boris Johnson at his press conferences, as ‘The Two Gentlemen of Corona’. Brilliant.

Humour is a free and effective way to soothe ourselves. Being able to laugh during all the uncertainty and loss, creates a powerful mental health ‘safety net’ that helps to cultivate resilience and courage.

There are good reasons bouts of belly-laughter feel so good – they produce profoundly beneficial effects. Pragmatically speaking, laughter heals by causing your diaphragm – the large transverse muscle that provides your lungs their bellow motion – to contract and release rhythmically until all the tension you’ve been holding in your solar plexus, dissolves.

This can explain a tendency for nervous laughter, during an argument or after hearing bad news. Rather than a confused response, our body can start us laughing to relieve tension, perhaps serving to protect ourselves against the true nature of what is happening.

The experience of laughter increases endorphin levels, lowers blood pressure and helps the pituitary gland release its own pain suppressing opiates. This strengthens your immune system, boosts mood and diminishes pain. The ability to laugh easily and frequently is also a tremendous resource for surmounting problems, managing stress and enhancing relationships.

Laughing is a form of social bonding (we are 30% more likely to laugh with other people than alone). Laughter is also (sorry) contagious. While my humour tends to run to the ‘gallows’ end of the spectrum, if someone else collapses into giggles at something I wouldn’t usually find funny, it’s highly likely their unrepentant joy will set me off.

Research shows that couples who laugh with each other find it much easier to dissipate tension after a stressful event and overall, are likely to stay together for longer. Other studies have shown that people who laugh together at funny videos are also more likely to open up about personal information, suggesting shared laughter paves the way for common ground between people.

Laughter is literally medicine, offering us a physiological and psychological buffer from the muck and bullets of life. In a crisis, it can be a powerful coping mechanism. Right now you may be feeling anxious for loved ones on the front lines and we are all mourning the loss of everyday freedoms. Too many are grieving family members who have succumbed to the virus.

It’s completely natural to feel some guilt if you find humorous aspects to something you believe warrants respectful solemnity. In a lot of ways inappropriateness is part of what makes many things funny in the first place.

At my Gran’s funeral, Mum was in charge of the music. I suspect it was her scrawled handwriting that made it difficult for the curate to know exactly what track to play from the Frank Sinatra CD, but as Gran’s coffin slowly departed through the velvet crematorium curtain, no one was expecting the trumpeting parts of New York, New York (“start spreadin’ the news, I’m leaving today…”) to come booming out of the chapel speakers.

There is a reason why we refer to ‘fits of giggles’. It’s often an involuntary response from our mind and body that can occur at the most inconvenient times. It’s not clear who sniggered first, but within minutes the front two pews were helplessly caught in the kind of belly laugh that is impossible to stop, that physically hurts, that causes tears and snot and the clutching of others arms to steady oneself; that most wondrous bubble of emotion.

The officiant was decidedly unimpressed at my family’s inability to control themselves (if only he knew), which made it even funnier. Family members have been known to hum the opening bars of Sinatra’s famous song during moments that call for seriousness.

Couple laughing together
Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

Laughter is subversive. The term ‘gallows humour’ originated in medieval Britain, where hangings took place in parks near pubs and patrons told jokes at the victims’ expense. Satire is designed to ensure those with power and privilege feel uncomfortable. In Jungian archetypes, the Jester uses humour (often without sensitivity) to illuminate hypocrisy, pomposity and snobbery.

Humour can helpfully lighten things up, but when it swings into glibness or flippancy, it can signal a person is trying to escape reality or is being insensitive.

Laughter is a unique tool for socialisation where there is a constant interplay between doing the right thing, and doing (just the right amount of) the wrong thing. And what we laugh at helps people establish their personal values in relation to the rest of the group.

Sometimes we don’t quite read the room. But trust yourself to know the difference between ‘bad taste’ to poke at the misery or suffering of others, and sharing your own stories – self-deprecating humour is almost always a safe bet. It can be helpful to remember that humour often has very little to do with ‘happiness’.  According to psychologists, humour almost always involves being able to recognise incongruity often between our expectations and our reality.

It may be that in times of difficulty that we need humour the most. Research has shown variously that laughter can help reduce the symptoms of depression, lower psychopathology in people experiencing psychosis, and foster self-esteem and memory improvements for people with dementia. A study reported in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care, revealed that humour was present in 85% of 132 observed nurse based visits; 70% was initiated by the patient.

The funniest people I know have experienced deep grief and suffering, have had times in their lives where they have felt crushed and broken-hearted. They have been deeply disappointed by their reality. And within the depths of their unhappiness, they have been able to muster the ability to see the absurdity of life.

Humour allows a crucial measure of relief for moments of distress, or in the face of loss. There are very few circumstances in which humour is unable to be found, and as long as the human spirit survives, we will be looking for lightness, for comedy even and especially in the dark tragedies.

One of my earlier memories is of Mum driving my brother and I home at night. I remember seeing the car lights reflect in the eyes of a hedgehog in the middle of the road, before the sickening thud. There was silence in the car until my seven year old little brother asked: ‘do you think she had a family?’ Mum was mortified as we spent the rest of the journey concocting an entire history for ‘Mrs Hedgey’.

Through giddy laughter and grief-stricken tears, my brother and I re-told this story at Mum’s funeral. This time the whole chapel laughed along with us and even on the most dreadful of days, we found some joy.

Sas Petherick is a researcher, coach and host of the Courage + Spice Podcast: for humans with self-doubt. You can find her on Instagram as @saspetherick.

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Featured image by Unsplash/Abbas Malek Hosseini.