Humor as a Coping Skill: The Art of Not Taking Yourself So Seriously

Humor as a Coping Skill: The Art of Not Taking Yourself So Seriously

“Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910), American Novelist and Humorist

There once was a king who lived in two-story grass hut. Every holiday the king demanded to be given a new throne as a gift. As soon as a new throne arrived, he would store the old throne on the second level of his hut and use the new one instead. But one day the hut collapsed from the weight of all the thrones, and everyone was killed. The moral of this story? Those who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.

I’m imagining all of the groans from one corner of the earth to the other as a result of this really bad joke. That’s okay, groan all you want. I still caused a response, while ever so slight, that eased a bit of stress. Humor does that. Let me put on my scientific hat for a moment and explain what happens when we possess a sense of humor or, on occasion, just laugh. Laughter is really a physiological experience.

  • Laughter reduces serum cortical (a hormone released during the stress response).
  • Laughter increases immunoglobin A (an antibody that helps fight upper respiratory disease).
  • Laughter increases tolerance to pain.
  • Laughter increases heart rate, pulse rate, and “juggles” the internal organs.

(Credited to Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D., 1995)

Aren’t these findings interesting? If you look closely at some of these physiological responses, such as heart and pulse rates increasing, you’ll notice that the body responds as it would during stress. Kahlil Gibran, the middle-eastern author of The Prophet, wrote “The selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

Okay, so laughter and humor are good for the body. So what? What if you don’t feel like laughing or you’re too depressed, anxious, manic, etc.? When a loved one dies or you are faced with a foreclosure, the last thing you want to do is raise your cheekbones and bellow out a hearty laugh. This is why I’ve entitled this article “The art of not taking yourself so seriously.” When the word art is used, it infers that somebody has mastered or is expert at a given skill. To be a master at something takes time and incessant practice. However, for some, natural talent is exhibited while for others the road is pain-staking. For starters, here are a few ideas on how to begin using humor and laughter appropriately.

  1. Know when humor or laughter is not an appropriate response. There is a time and a season for humor and mirth. One would not expect humor to surface during a crisis or unplanned pregnancy, placing a baby for adoption, or even looking into adoption. The body needs to experience this stress response. Like an exhaust pipe, one needs to go through the process of expunging and managing these stressors appropriately. The results can be emotions such as disappointment, shock, sadness, discouragement, etc. These responses are generally healthy. Using humor as a cloak that masks real issues is just like slapping a band aid on a wound that needs stitches. The problem is just being covered up and not dealing with it appropriately. Allow yourself to go through the natural process of feeling. Yes, it’s really okay to feel!
  2. Before laughter comes smiling. If you’re feeling stress do something that might give you the opportunity to smile. The source of your smile might not be something that is funny. A photo album, an old note to your boyfriend or wife that you found, reading your journal, all of these can be potential means to a smile. Reading or hearing something inspirational can also produce a similar effect.
  3. If at all possible, share humor together. Laughter or humor in isolation is not nearly as effective as sharing it. When grilling up a barbecue atop burning coals, the original agent that sparked the coals to burn has long since died out. The only thing that’s keeping the coals heated is each other. If one coal is removed from the others and left exposed to the elements, it will lose its glow and eventually burn out. The same principle exists with human beings. We are social beings no matter if we are inclined to shyness or comfort in aloneness. The body is meant to survive in numbers; therefore, let’s share a hearty moment of mirth together.
  4. Keep a humor journal. Keep a paper and pen handy during the day and jot down anything that you have found humorous, ironic, serendipitous, etc. This form of journal writing releases us from the fetters of forgetfulness and allows us to remember the humor midst a day rife with stress, demands, and pressure. And, yes, share your journal with somebody you love and/or trust.

There are many other ways to use humor during stress such as watching a funny movie or emailing a joke to friends and family before you start your day. However, wisdom and discernment must be used to determine appropriate timing for humor to be a healthy coping strategy, especially when is going through something as serious and life changing as considering pregnancy options.

By Matthew Barkdull, LMFT, MedFT