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Why We Laugh When We're Nervous

Incongruous laughter can be either adaptive or maladaptive or both.

Key points

  • Nervous laughter can be viewed as a defense mechanism subconsciously employed to protect one from feeling overwhelmed with anxiety.
  • Nervous laughter can negatively affect both our personal and professional relationships, resulting in greater misunderstandings and conflict.
  • No quick fixes exist for nervous laughter, but some measures that have been advanced include yoga, deep breathing and improving social skills.
fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

If you’re paying close enough attention, you’ll easily recognize nervous laughter as incongruous to the situation—as mostly fake. And this despite the laugher’s actual intentions being largely unconscious. If you force a laugh at your boss’s lame attempt at humor, it might actually be called “strategic laughter.” Or maybe “polite laughter,” if you’re empathic and don’t want them to feel embarrassed.

The most frequently cited example of nervous laughter is that revealed in Stanley Milgram’s subjects in his ’60s experiment designated “obedience to authority.” In this notorious study (which universities wouldn’t dare allow today) subjects—or “teachers”—were told to administer electric shocks to unseen strangers when they answered a question incorrectly, with these shocks ever-increasing in intensity.

The “learners” in this study, however, were actually confederates and didn’t receive a single shock. Still, they playacted with progressively louder screams as the supposed voltage of the shocks intensified. And ironically, the higher this pretended voltage the more likely some of the teachers were to laugh.

The conclusion that researchers have arrived at is that as the deceived teachers witnessed the apparently escalating suffering of those who presumably they were complicit in shocking, the more stressed-out they became. Still, acquiescing to the authority of the lead psychiatrist, they continued to follow his perversely sadistic instructions. And to regulate their mounting agitation, anxiety, and conflict about what they were consenting to do, they couldn’t help but emit nervous—yet curiously stabilizing—laughter.

What Makes Nervous Laughter Adaptive

In the highly regarded A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness (2005), neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, Ph.D., argues that nervous laughter can be viewed as a defense mechanism employed to protect a person from being overcome with anxiety. In short, it’s a form of emotional regulation that upholds one’s cognitive functioning in the face of a perturbing situation.

In his own words, Ramachandran states: “We have nervous laughter because we want to make ourselves think what horrible thing we encountered [or caused] isn’t really as horrible as it appears, something we want [and need] to believe.” And he also believes that such laughter can help us recover from trauma by defensively replacing our pain with a less negative emotion.

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. To Joe Nowinski, Ph.D., similar to unforced laughter, nervous laughter can discharge the negative energy of anxiety, helping us calm down. And Margaret Clark, Ph.D. and co-author of “Dimorphous Expression of Positive Emotion,” sees nervous laughter as “down-regulating” a person’s emotional discomfort. Whether people are feeling extremely uplifting or distressing emotions, which can threaten adaptive functioning, laughter is a mechanism capable of restoring their emotional balance, or homeostasis.

In a post entitled “Why We Laugh” (2011), Alex Lickerman, M.D., ties nervous laughter to resilience, speculating that as one of the more “mature” defense mechanisms, confronting past trauma with humor may be seen as signaling psychological healing. Once we can joke about something terrible that happened to us, we’re indirectly communicating that we survived it and that having integrated it, it no longer need prevent us from getting on with our lives.

What Makes Nervous Laughter Maladaptive

It’s one thing to adopt a nervous laugh to diminish a high-tension situation. It’s something else if over time that reaction becomes automatic, a go-to response across various anxiety-inducing circumstances. For once it generalizes beyond a certain degree, there’s typically a price to pay, which can be considerable.

Your brain can’t function optimally when—however subconsciously—you’re focusing on emotional regulation, meaning that your decision-making capability will be impaired. Your self-consciousness (which nervous laughter is intimately yoked to) will make you less cognizant of your outward environment.

And that cloudiness is likely to affect both your personal and professional relationships negatively and culminate in more misunderstanding and discord, precisely what you mimicked laughter to escape.

Ideally, in challenging situations, you want to act in ways that empower you. And that requires your rational faculties to be fully intact, so that you can realistically appraise the situation and rehearse the most appropriate response to it. Put somewhat differently, you need to be reflective—not reflexive—to best cope with demanding situations.

But when nervous laughter is no longer within your control, it ceases to be a useful defense against vulnerability. Additionally, it can be uncontrollable because it represents just one of several symptoms of an underlying medical condition.

So if your nervous laughter has left you feeling weak, embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed, and/or left others feeling awkward, confused, or critical of you (perhaps perceiving you as minimizing their concerns or being indiscriminately rude to them), such repercussions would clearly outweigh whatever stress-abating advantages it might otherwise offer you.

Laughing nervously can immediately mitigate your anxiety. But if you’ve unwittingly developed the habit of “laughing everything off,” your inopportune, inappropriate laughter can result in other’s disapproval or rejection, making you even more anxious than before.

Remedies for Nervous Laughter

There are no quick fixes for nervous laughter, nor ways of totally eradicating it. Still, many authors (academics and others) have proposed a large variety of useful things to try, generally admitting that their success will depend on the individual. And while the origins of such laughter are predominantly psychological, as already indicated there are physical and medical sources as well, which obviously necessitate a different sort of (mostly drug-related) treatment.

I’ll start by listing some psychological approaches advanced as countermeasures to (whether right away or over time) alter one’s nervous-laughter mindset. And all these methods work on two levels at once: They distract you from the uneasy feelings precipitating your laughter, refocusing your attention away from your situation-specific emotion(s). And, in quieting your nervous system, they also reduce physical tension and calm you down, enabling you to think more clearly.

So, consider:

  • Deep (or diaphragmatic) breathing;
  • Counting (to 3, 10, 30, etc.—and you could try this simultaneous with your slowed-down breathing);
  • Yoga, or other practices or disciplines;
  • Strenuous exercise regimens or workouts;
  • Mindfulness meditation (frequently regarded as enhancing emotional regulation);
  • Chanting, or repeating selective musical phrases (a kind of singing meditation);
  • Learning about the cues that trigger your pseudo-laughter (i.e., when it happens: where are you, what’s the time of day, what preceded it, who else was there, and what before then was your mental/emotional state? For if you’re to break a habit, you want to determine what activates it before you seek a more suitable alternative);
  • Improving your social skills in general, and your assertiveness skills in particular (so you’ll have better resources for dealing with difficult interpersonal situations);
  • Listening with empathy (for actively connecting with another’s emotional experience helps you separate from nervous feelings);
  • Confiding in a good friend (if you have auditory blind spots, not noticing when you’re engaging in this worrisome habit, enlist the understanding, support, and guidance of someone willing to offer feedback);
  • Grounding yourself by mindfully focusing on (1) moment-to-moment bodily sensations, (2) objects surrounding you—their name, size, color, etc., or (3) rudimentary facts about yourself—your age, height, schools you went to, jobs held, etc.

When the reasons for your nervous laughter aren’t psychological but symptomatic of an underlying medical ailment, here (very briefly) are some conditions related to such unintended laughter—many of which can be addressed through dietary changes and prescribed medications:

  • Hyperthyroidism;
  • Autoimmune conditions, like Graves’ disease;
  • Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) (which can result from neurological disorders like traumatic brain injury (TBI), strokes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis (MS);
  • Kuru (an extremely rare prion disease that damages your cerebellum, thus interfering with normal emotional processing);
  • Autism (which can severely constrict your ability to read social cues); and
  • Psychosis and severe bipolar disorder.

So if you, or possibly one of your clients, suffer from nervous laughter, becoming more acquainted with the above causes and cures could be a crucial first step in effective treatment.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Aragón, O. R. et al. (2015). Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion, 26(3), 259-273. https://clarkrelationshiplab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Psychol…

Arzt, N. (2021, Jul 23). Nervous Laughter—Its Causes and How to Overcome It. https://socialpronow.com/blog/nervous-laughter/

Davies, S. T. (2021, Jul 28). How to Stop Nervous Laughter (A Step-By-Step Guide). https://www.samuelthomasdavies.com/how-to-stop-nervous-laughter/

Herbert, W. (2014, Nov 6). Nervous Laughter, Tears of Joy. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/were-only-human/nervous-laugh…

Jewell, T. (2019, Oct 18). What Causes Nervous Laughter? https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/nervous-laughter

Lickerman, A. (2011, Jan 23). Why We Laugh. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201101/why-w…

Nervous Laughter. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nervous_laughter

Ramachandran, V. S. (2004). A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers. New York: Pearson Education Press

What’s So Funny? Why We Laugh When We’re Nervous or Uncomfortable (n.a., 2021). https://www.headspace.com/articles/whats-so-funny

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