The Psychology of Comedy as a Defense Mechanism

Psychology of Comedy - Defense Mechanism

The late Joan Rivers once said, “If you can laugh at it, you can deal with it.” Beyond providing a moment of laughter, humor serves as a valuable tool that can enforce social bonds, challenge harmful societal norms and de-escalate conflicts. It also gives us an effective way to process grief, trauma and stress.

Dark humor, also known as gallows humor or black comedy, is a style of humor that lets us tackle disturbing or taboo subjects in a non-threatening, lighthearted way. While not everyone appreciates dark humor, it can serve as an effective coping mechanism that helps individuals gain perspective and build resilience.

Introduction: Humor’s Role in Coping with Stress

At first glance, humor may not seem all that complex – many of us seem to be prewired to pick up on day-to-day ironies and absurdities and turn them into a joke. Experiencing an awkward or embarrassing situation in a public setting, navigating the demands of a difficult boss or trying to accommodate an unreasonable family member is rarely fun in the moment. However, it can make for a funny story later on – hence the popularity of stand-up comedy and television sitcoms. Humor lets us reframe stressful situations in a way that makes them easier to mentally digest.

This coping mechanism gives us gallows humor, or humor related to deeply troubling, traumatic or scary events. We saw this a few years ago during the early days of the COVID pandemic. Every day, we read news stories from around the world of overflowing hospitals, rising death tolls, people stranded due to travel bans, and the impact isolation had on everyone from young children to seniors. At the same time, social media brought us endless jokes, making fun of those same disruptions and tragedies.

Gallows humor is also common among people who work in fields in which they’re regularly exposed to extreme stress or trauma, and oftentimes, it serves as a key component in workplace culture. Doctors and first responders, for example, are known for appreciating dark jokes. Though this humor can seem cold or even uncaring to some, it rarely comes from a place of callousness. Psychologists have theorized that laughter alleviates inner psychological tension and serves as a healthy coping mechanism in stressful situations.

Voiceover actress Tawny Platis gives us an outstanding example of how gallows humor is used to navigate tragedy. In 2019, when she was just 29 years old, Platis’s husband passed away in their home. After his death, Platis coped with her grief by turning the podcast they hosted together into a show called Death Is Hilarious. In her podcast, she engages with others who use dark humor to deal with their grief and approach topics related to death in a positive way.

Defense Mechanisms: Exploring Humor as a Psychological Defense

It’s normal to subconsciously look for ways to buffer the full impact of traumatic events. These defense mechanisms look different in different people. For some, denying facts or reality lets them cope, while others work to find logical explanations or deeper meaning in tragedies or traumatic events.

Though it’s often overlooked, humor stands out as a uniquely sophisticated and effective defense mechanism, allowing us to explore injustices and express raw thoughts and feelings about a tragedy or trauma in a lighthearted, low-conflict way. Instead of being broken down by a stressful situation, many people use humor to cushion reality and introduce levity. By using humor to address a tragic or traumatic event, individuals aren’t avoiding reality, they’re simply reframing it in a way they can more easily handle.

Using humor as a defense mechanism is associated with resilience, letting individuals find a positive, optimistic perspective in the face of adversity and maintain joy even when navigating dire circumstances. Rather than suppressing uncomfortable feelings and avoiding grief, it allows individuals to experience, connect over and talk about a full range of emotions without worrying about judgment.

Benefits: Discussing How Comedy Fosters Resilience

We’re familiar with the range of psychological and physiological benefits humor can bring, with studies showing that laughter can reduce anxiety, encourage social connections and decrease stress hormones. A well-timed joke, even (or especially) a dark one, can break tension and elevate spirits, acting as a pressure valve that protects your mental well-being in the face of tragedy.

How Does Comedy Foster Resilience?

There are several ways in which comedy can serve as a valuable psychological tool for dealing with life’s most significant challenges.

Comedy Can Provide a Mental Break

Tragedy and exposure to trauma can be exhausting, whether it’s a one-time occurrence such as the death of a spouse or child or daily exposure from a career in a field such as health care. Comedy can temporarily provide a mental reprieve from the stress that accompanies trauma, letting you get your bearings without completely disengaging.

Comedy Can Create a Sense of Connection

There’s a reason that dark humor is such a consistent part of the work culture among those who serve in the military, support their communities as first responders or provide care in a hospital setting. Individuals working in these fields, as well as those who share tragic or traumatic experiences, can connect by taking a lighthearted, if a little irreverent, approach to the difficult topics and circumstances they’re forced to confront. Going through difficult times can be isolating, but humor combats that by providing people with shared experiences an opportunity to bond.

Comedy Can Bring a New Perspective

When you’re in survival mode, it can be difficult to take a balanced, objective approach to your circumstances. Dark humor helps to build resilience by letting you see your experience through a different lens, allowing you to face adversity with a sense of levity.

Mindful Use: Encouraging Healthy Humor Application

While humor, dark or otherwise, can be a valuable tool that helps an individual face grim realities without being overwhelmed by them, it’s important to be mindful. Not everyone copes with tragedy or navigates grief in the same way, and what could alleviate pain and stress for one person could cause pain to another.

Know Your Audience

Before making a dark joke, be sure the people you’re with are receptive to this type of humor. In a support group setting, for example, some people may feel comfortable with morbid humor. For others, however, some things are too painful or sacred to joke about. A shared experience doesn’t guarantee the effectiveness of shared coping mechanisms.

Be Mindful of Frequency

Generally speaking, it’s best to use gallows humor sparingly. Used too often, this type of comic relief can desensitize you to serious matters and may cause you to react inappropriately or callously in critical situations.

Consider the Impact of a Joke

Humor provides a healthy way to engage with difficult emotions, but it shouldn’t be used to deflect or dismiss them. Before making a morbid joke, consider how it may affect the person you’re talking to. In some situations, humor can break trust and undermine a relationship.

Avoid Insensitivity

Particularly in professional environments, it’s important to avoid jokes that may come off as callous or cynical. Again, not everyone appreciates dark humor, and it can jeopardize your relationships as well as your career.

Pay Attention to Context and Ethical Boundaries

Limit gallows humor to settings in which it can serve as a coping mechanism, not where it may cause harm. Additionally, ensure that your humor doesn’t cross ethical lines or contribute to a culture of detachment or dismissiveness.

Dark humor can play an important role in helping us build resilience, process grief or trauma and reframe experiences. While it’s important to be mindful of how it’s used, it can be a powerful tool for navigating challenging situations.