Laughter as a Coping Mechanism

Child and mother laughing
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Many people find themselves feeling embarrassed when they look back on mistakes they've made, even in childhood. Although social missteps and well-intentioned mistakes are common and virtually unavoidable over the course of one's lifetime, many of us beat ourselves up over the embarrassing things we've done in the past. This can be a significant source of stress, particularly for those who experience some level of anxiety, particularly social anxiety. Many people have found solace with the simple idea that, "someday we'll look back on this and laugh.”

When we become able to laugh about the embarrassing things we've done in the past, we take the shame out of the memory and replace it with camaraderie, or at least a good measure of humor. This can de-stress the experience and the memory of it.

Finding a group of friends, or even just one good friend, who can share the burden of embarrassment by sharing a good laugh, can be transformative. Learning the skill of being able to look at memories this way can enable us to be more forgiving with ourselves and others. It can even enable us to react less with embarrassment and more with good humor to mistakes we make in the present, particularly if we imagine that the "someday" when we'll be laughing about this, can be today.

Laughing at what stresses or embarrasses us is an inborn ability for some, but can be a learned skill for others. You can also enhance your ability to do this, so it becomes a habit that comes much more easily and automatically. If you'd like to expand your ability to laugh at stressful situations, the following tips can help you to further develop this skill.

Take a Step Back

One of the main goals of finding the humor in a stressful situation is to use the humor to create distance between yourself and the stress you are experiencing. Laughing at the humorous aspects of a stressful situation can help you to keep things in perspective and remind yourself that what you experience may not be the worst thing you can possibly face.

If you are having trouble finding the humor in your situation, it could help to approach things from a different angle: instead of using humor to find perspective, put things in perspective to allow yourself to more easily see the humor.

If you rate your stress on a scale from 1, which represents "not at all stressful" to 10, representing "as stressful as this can be," you can often remind yourself that this isn't the most stress you have faced and that things could be worse. This puts space between you and the situation, and that space can also add some much-needed levity to the situation, and make it easier for you to see the humor where possible.

Look for the Absurdity

What are the chances? What are the chances that this many things would go wrong, or that they'd go wrong in this exact way? Is there irony in your situation? Is this part of a series of unfortunate events? Is it just what you'd expect if this were a slapstick comedy?

Read Humorous Memoirs

It can be a wonderful stress relief to read humorous books about other people's lives, and this can provide great practice with self-acceptance as well. Really well-written books can frame an embarrassing mistake as a hilarious tale that can help us all feel better about our own mistakes. David Sedaris and Mindy Kaling both have excellent books that make this look easy.

Imagine This as an Episode or a Chapter

Some of the best comedies have some of the most outlandish problems as part of the plot, but great comedy can also result from mundane challenges. This is good news because, whatever you face (short of a tragedy), you can usually find some humor.

It helps to watch funny movies and shows or read funny books somewhat regularly. This helps you to keep a light-hearted frame of mind, but it also helps you to have a frame of reference for how people can face stressful situations with a smile and a laugh.

Imagine yourself facing the stressful situations you face as if they were a plot line in one of your favorite shows or a chapter in a beloved book. Imagining how the characters you love might respond to this situation, may help you to find a more lighthearted response as well, and can at least help to put a smile on your lips more easily.

Swap Stories With Friends and Remember Them

Talking to friends and finding social support when stressed is a tried-and-true coping strategy. If you find a friend who helps you to find the humor in stressful situations, or even just laugh at other things, hold onto them and value this quality! (Be sure to return the favor whenever possible, too; this can be good for both of you.)

Not only can it help to be able to call someone, process your situation, and share a laugh, it can help you as you face your stressful situations to know that you have someone out there who will laugh with you later, and it can help you to remember all that you've shared laughs about in the past. Having even one such friend can help you to maintain your sense of humor much more easily.

Practice Journaling

If you've enjoyed reading other people's memoirs or heard friends' stories. this can help you to get more comfortable with your own. This opens up another tool at your disposal: journaling. Practice writing your stories in a humorous way. You may first write them as you've experienced them, but then shift into creative writing mode and mine your experiences for the humor and rewrite in the style of your favorite author. If nothing else, this can help you to reap the benefits of journaling.

Shift Your Focus

Sometimes you may have a hard time finding the humor in your situation, but you can laugh at other things—this is great, too! Shift your focus to something else that might make you laugh or smile—funny videos, articles about something you find noteworthy, anything that might lift your mood—and come back to your challenge with a more relaxed attitude. With your stress response diminished, what seemed like a looming catastrophe may feel like a much smaller, less intimidating challenge, something that's much easier to laugh about.

Focus on Stress Management

When you have other coping strategies that work, you can more easily find the humor in stressful situations. Meditation, exercise, cognitive reframing, and other stress management techniques can help you to keep from getting to a point where things feel overwhelming and it's difficult to laugh about it.

Make Humor a Regular Part of Your Life

Prioritize maintaining a sense of humor when you are not facing stress, and you'll find it much easier to revert to that frame of mind, even when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Make it a priority to laugh when you can and add some fun to each day. You'll find that the stress melts away much more easily.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.