When I was in middle school, my good friend told me her grandmother had passed away… and I laughed. Naturally, I was mortified and hastily tried to explain that I was very sad for her and so sorry for her loss.
At the time I wondered if there was something deeply wrong with me. What kind of person laughs at the death of another’s loved one? On the inside I knew my heart was sad but I couldn’t help but wonder: why wasn’t this reflected on my face?
If you’ve ever had an experience of laughing at a moment that feels inappropriate, you’re not alone. Whether it is about something sad, awkward, or even traumatic, it can be uncomfortable to find yourself laughing when you feel like there is a more appropriate response.
However, this kind of laughter is actually a very normal response.
Laughing in difficult situations can be a way our bodies protect ourselves - something psychologists sometimes call a defense mechanism. Laughing may send a signal both to us and to those around us that “everything’s okay” which can help make challenging situations feel more manageable.
Even when it isn’t actually true that everything is okay, laughing can help us by creating distance between us and the pain. This can make the issue feel smaller so it’s not so overwhelming that we have to avoid thinking about it entirely. Additionally, we may laugh to put aside more difficult emotions until we are sure we are in a place that is safe to have and process those emotions. Sometimes it might not be beneficial for us to show how we really feel behind the laughter right then. In these scenarios, it is important we have a way to cope in the moment, until we are able to create space to begin processing the harder emotions.
When we have faced many painful circumstances in our lives, sometimes it can be hard for us to ever feel safe enough to show emotions other than laughter. For instance, you may find yourself laughing or smiling even when you talk about traumatic events in a supportive environment like therapy. That’s okay - your body has just gotten used to this method of keeping you safe. Your therapist can slowly help you find ways to acknowledge and release more difficult or unpleasant emotions at a pace that feels comfortable for you.
So laughing at seemingly strange moments isn’t always a bad thing, though it may get us into some awkward social situations sometimes (i.e., me in middle school!). It might feel uncomfortable, but like many things we do, there is a purpose behind it.
A word of note - sometimes laughing at difficult situations can become unhelpful. Some signs to watch out for may include if laughter is getting in the way of your goals or if you only feel able to laugh when challenging things arise.
If you feel unable to release emotions other than laughter when thinking about something painful, it may be safest to begin the process of addressing this while in therapy. Particularly for those with trauma, it is important to be in a safe, supportive environment when allowing ourselves to feel emotions that are particularly difficult for us.
However, if you are feeling safe to do so, other coping mechanisms may help you make space to sit in more unpleasant emotions. Maybe try crying in the shower, yelling into a pillow, or blowing up a balloon and then popping it. Some people find it helpful to listen to angry music or watch a sad movie.
Coping with difficult emotions can be challenging. Do your best to identify what’s useful for you in a given situation, whether that’s laughter or something else entirely.