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Have you ever attended the funeral of a close family member and been plagued with an attack of giggles?
Perhaps it was while someone was talking about how much that family member meant to them. In the middle of sniffles and the surreptitious wiping of tears, you were struggling against the inappropriate urge to burst into laughter.
Maybe your uncomfortable fit of laughter occurred at work during a board meeting to discuss how the company is not reaching the financial targets set. Definitely not a topic that should amuse anyone.
Whatever happened, you had an overwhelming urge to burst into laughter. What made the situation worse was your awareness that laughter in that situation was highly improper. But that only made it more difficult to stop.
That can be an extremely embarrassing predicament to be in, especially with people looking at you like you’re some kind of insensitive and disrespectful monster.
If you have been in this situation before, the shame of uncontrollable laughter can be enough to cause social anxiety. Who wants to be in a situation where you are going to offend people you respect or love?
Luckily, you are not the only person to struggle with laughter in serious situations. It happens to many people and for different reasons.
Let’s look at what causes this uncontrollable laughter and what to do when it happens.
Why Do You Laugh In Serious Situations?
There are many reasons our emotions betray us by causing us to burst into laughter in highly stressful or sensitive situations. Knowing what causes these embarrassing giggle fits can help take away the sting of guilt that comes with it and lead us towards coping skills or treatment to lessen future occurrences.
1. Natural reaction.
For some people, laughter is a natural reaction when faced with a highly stressful situation. When they face high levels of anxiety, confusion, stress, and discomfort, at that moment, their body triggers laughter as a defense mechanism to downregulate the emotion.
Some research has even found that nervous laughter may be a defense mechanism against emotions that may make us feel weak or vulnerable.
Laughter erupts from people who struggle with this condition to signal to the rest of the body that they are not in danger and that everything is ok. It helps them relieve stress, release tension, and calm the rest of the body down.
2. Social anxiety.
People who suffer with social anxiety will struggle in situations where they are not familiar with the people or surroundings. They are fearful of or anxious about social situations because of a fear of negative judgment, embarrassment, or rejection.
This can lead to inappropriate behavior in these situations, such as spontaneous laughter.
Social Anxiety Disorder is one of the most common mental health disorders, with fifteen million American adults suffering from it, according to Mental Health America.
People living with this disorder often experience the following:
- physical symptoms, such as blushing, sweating, trembling, nausea, increased heart rate, and the mind “going blank”
- feelings of panic or panic attacks
- fear of experiencing anxiety or of seeming anxious in front of others
- an intense fear of judgment from others
- feelings of fear or dread in situations with other people, especially strangers
- feeling very self-conscious, embarrassed, or awkward in front of others
- having difficulty speaking
- avoiding situations that might trigger anxiety
- a rigid body posture and a soft voice during social interactions
- difficulty making or maintaining eye contact
- sensitivity to criticism, low self-esteem, and negative self-talk
While many people may have experienced one or several of the signs above, those with this disorder describe the anxiety they have as being overpowering and out of their control.
3. Neurological disorders.
Neurological disorders can also produce the urge to laugh in improper situations.
People who have suffered a stroke which affected the frontal lobes of the brain can have issues with uncontrollable laughter. When the frontal lobe of the brain is damaged, communication between it and the cerebellum is affected, which leads to improper laughter.
4. Tourette Syndrome or OCD.
If the inappropriate laughter occurs after a specific phrase or sentence, this could be a sign of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Tourette Syndrome, specifically Gilles de la Tourette syndrome (GTS), as a type of vocal tic.
OCD is comorbid with Tourette Syndrome, which means that many people who have OCD eventually develop tics. According to the International OCD Foundation, nearly 60% of Tourette Syndrome sufferers have been reported to have OCD symptoms, 50% of children with OCD are reported to have had tics, and 15% met the criteria for Tourette Syndrome.
5. Psychiatric disorders.
Certain psychiatric disorders can cause uncontrollable laughter. In particular, psychiatric disorders that have hypomania – a lesser state of mania – as a symptom.
People with this symptom will be extremely happy most of the time, while also being very loud, hyperactive, energetic, and engaging in attention-seeking behavior.
An example of a psychiatric disorder that causes laughter at inappropriate times is schizophrenia. This happens because people with schizophrenia have difficulty regulating their emotions. They even experience hallucinations that are funny or induce anxious laughter. When they are having a manic episode, they can be very excited or feel powerful. Because they perceive the world differently than others do, they may be amused or excited by things/situations that do not provoke the same reaction in most people.
6. Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA)
Usually, people with Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA) have an underlying neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to control and express emotion.
The pseudobulbar affect is a condition that’s characterized by episodes of sudden uncontrollable and inappropriate laughing or crying. It commonly occurs in people who have neurological conditions or injuries, such as:
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Traumatic brain injury
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
Pseudobulbar affect is often undiagnosed or mistaken for mood disorders. However, once it is diagnosed, it can be properly managed with medication.
Different medical conditions can cause uncontrollable laughter. These illnesses include:
- Hyperthyroidism – Occurs when the thyroid gland makes too much of one or both thyroid hormones called T4 and T3.
- Graves Disease – This happens when the immune system makes too many antibodies that attach to thyroid cells. Having too much of the thyroid hormone can affect the nervous system. One symptom of this is nervous laughter, even when nothing is happening that is funny.
- Kuru (TSEs) – This is a rare condition known as a prion disease. It occurs when an abnormal protein called a prion infects the brain. This can stop the brain from functioning properly. It also damages the part of the brain called the cerebellum, which is where many emotional processes are located.
How To Stop Laughing In Serious Situations
With all the possible medical, psychiatric, and neurological disorders that could potentially cause people to break out in uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times, it’s a wonder it doesn’t happen more often. But one thing is certain, you are not the only person who suffers from an inability to stop laughing at unsuitable times.
If you want to take back control of your emotions and feel less anxious in social situations that normally trigger a laughing attack, check out the following 12 coping skills that can help you control your laughter.
1. Get a medical checkup.
The first step is to get a comprehensive medical checkup to make sure you are physically and mentally fit. With so many causes of uncontrollable laughter, it’s better to ensure it is not the result of physical or mental impairment.
Many of the ailments mentioned above are easily treatable once diagnosed. So book a medical appointment as soon as you can to make sure you are mentally and physically healthy.
There is no need to continue suffering embarrassment in social situations when a treatable medical condition is the cause.
2. Identify your triggers.
What usually makes you laugh inappropriately? Do you burst into giggles when you’re nervous? Or is it when you’re feeling uncomfortable? Is it when you or people around you are feeling painful emotions that you get the uncontrollable urge to laugh? Take time out to identify what makes you laugh in improper situations.
Whatever the reason may be for bursting out into fits of uncontrollable laughter, write it down. Also, note the time, location, occasion, and even people present while you’re laughing. Anything that occurs repeatedly could be one of your triggers.
Once you’re able to identify your triggers, you can put together a plan to mitigate them once they show up. For example, if you notice you’re prone to laughing uncontrollably when you’re tired and under pressure, take steps to get extra rest and engage in stress-relieving self-care before a big presentation, meeting, or social event.
If you don’t know what triggers your laughing spells, you won’t know when they’re coming, nor will you be able to block them.
3. Distract yourself from the urge to laugh.
Perhaps you’re already at an emotional event, like someone’s funeral, and can feel the laughter bubbling up inside you. Quickly distract yourself from the giggles by doing any of the following:
- Pinch yourself – the slight pain will distract you from the urge to laugh
- Count backwards from 100 or say the alphabet backwards
- Make a list in your head, such as a grocery list or to-do list
- Look for a certain color in the room and count the number of objects in the room with that color
- Sing a song to yourself – it can be something simple like the ABCs
If you find yourself wanting to laugh during an office meeting, try clicking a pen or twirling it around your fingers. You could even try nodding along to what is being said or repeating what is being said in your head.
Take your mind off the situation or whatever it is you find so amusing and replace it with behavior that you can do inconspicuously.
4. Learn to cope with Social Anxiety Disorder.
If you have been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder, work with a licensed therapist to learn coping skills that will help you better manage social situations. Treatment options for this disorder include:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy – This method will help you learn how to control anxiety using relaxation and breathing techniques. You’ll also learn how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
- Exposure Therapy – Exposure therapy was developed to help people confront their fears. With this form of therapy, a safe environment is created in which individuals are “exposed” to the things they fear and subsequently avoid. This method eventually helps to reduce fear and decrease avoidance.
- Group Therapy – This method helps you learn social skills and techniques you can use to interact with people while in social settings. Therapy sessions are conducted in group sessions, which help you feel less alone as you interact with people who have the same fears as you do.
Your doctor may even suggest some medications to you if they find that will be a better approach to treat this disorder. Ask your healthcare provider about the benefits and risks involved in the different treatment options and choose the best option for you.
5. Move to a private location when you start to laugh.
If you feel the giggles coming on, quickly excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or wherever. Just leave the room as soon as possible so you don’t descend into laughter in front of everyone. Once there, laugh (quietly, of course) to your heart’s content.
Get it all out of your system.
This method works best when you know your triggers and are able to recognize the signs of laughter bubbling up inside you. The earlier you notice the signs, the sooner you can make a quick getaway to save yourself from embarrassment.
6. Cover up your laughter with a cough.
Sometimes the laughter sneaks up on you. One minute you’re fine, the next you’re struggling to keep your face straight.
In situations like this, cover up your laughter with a cough. Not only will this mask your amusement, but it will also take your mind off what is causing you to laugh so you can give a convincing performance. Bend over, cover your face, and pat your chest, all while trying to get your “cough” under control.
You should note that the cough gives you only a few seconds to get yourself together. So you need to be sure that will be enough time for you to get things under control. Thankfully, though, you can easily upgrade to a coughing fit, which will give you the opportunity to leave the room so you can gather yourself in private.
7. Write it down.
If you have an upcoming situation that you know will trigger you, take along a small notepad and pen with you. When you feel as if you’re about to laugh, act like you’re taking notes and write some affirmations on the notepad like “I am in control of my laughter and will release it later in private.” Write it over and over until you feel in control of your emotions.
Or if you prefer, you could actually take notes of what is being said. Not only will this save you from embarrassment, but you’ll also appear to be actively listening to what is being said.
8. Deep breathing exercises.
One of the best things about deep breathing exercises is that no one needs to know that you’re doing them. It helps center you, control your emotions, and relax anxiety that overstimulates your nervous system and brain.
Below is a breathing exercise from WebMD that you can try while seated:
With this exercise, you match how long you breathe in with how long you breathe out. Over time, you can increase how long you’re able to breathe in and out at a time.
- Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair.
- Breathe in through your nose. As you do it, count to five.
- Breathe out through your nose to the count of five.
- Repeat several times.
Once you feel comfortable with breaths that last five counts, increase how long you breathe in and breathe out. You can work up to breaths that last up to 10 counts.
9. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) operates on the theory that how we think (cognition), how we feel (emotion), and how we act (behavior) are all interrelated. It seeks to help people understand how their thoughts affect their feelings and actions.
CBT teaches people to pay attention to their thoughts and notice when they make negative interpretations of their negative behavioral patterns, which reinforce the distorted thinking pattern.
A licensed therapist can use CBT to teach you how to track negative thoughts and disrupt nervous laughter with a conscious response.
10. Quiet meditation.
Quiet meditation, also known as Vipassana, is used to calm the mind and enhance concentration. When you practice quiet meditation, you turn inward where you are forced to confront uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
Doing this for a prolonged period or repeatedly helps you to better process and manage your negative thoughts. It also teaches you how to stop reacting to negative situations or in negative circumstances.
The goal of silent meditation is for you to gain insight into the true nature of reality. In silence, you can examine your perception of situations or circumstances. The name “Vipassana” means to see things how they truly are and to not let talking, noise, or other forms of communication distract you from that or get in the way.
To practice silent meditation, you need to focus your attention on your breath. Every time your mind shifts its focus away from your breath or you get lost in thought, simply and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Repeat this again and again until your session is over.
With Yoga, you’re not just training your body to handle life’s challenges as you move through the poses, but you’re also using the power of your breath and your mind to ground yourself. As a result, yoga poses can help relax both your mind and your body.
Practicing yoga for as little as five minutes can show you how calming and relaxing it is as you sync your movement and breath. When you deepen the stretch, you have to focus on your breath in order to hold it in proper form.
With regular practice of yoga, you’ll notice that it:
- Improves your mood
- Helps your mind relax
- Improves your focus
- Helps you get better quality sleep
- Reinforces better breathing techniques
A major benefit of practicing yoga and meditation is that they make you more aware of your body and how it feels. So if you have difficulty noticing your triggers, these two methods will help you better tune in to your body and your emotions.
12. Apologize for your laughter.
If you were unable to contain your laughter and let it slip out during an improper time, apologize to the host of the social gathering or meeting.
Shortly after the incident, explain to them your difficulties with handling stressful or emotionally charged situations. Tell them you’re sorry if your reaction hurt or offended them.
If you are upfront about your difficulties, most people will understand.
If you’ve been struggling with laughing in serious situations, you’ve probably suffered a lot of guilt and embarrassment from it. You are not the only person to suffer this challenge. It’s not because you are insensitive and do not understand human emotions.
If the laughter is not because of a medical condition, it is likely the result of your body kicking into defense mode to protect you from hurt and pain. Laughter is our weapon against suffering and despair. Even when we don’t want to, our bodies switch into defensive mode to protect us against a perceived attack.
While it may be annoying to experience in the moment, it is actually pretty amazing when you think about how our bodies look after us, even when we don’t realize that we need it.
Still not sure why you laugh in serious situations or how to stop? Talking to someone can really help you to handle whatever life throws at you. It’s a great way to get your thoughts and your worries out of your head so you can work through them.
We really recommend you speak to a therapist rather than a friend or family member. Why? Because they are trained to help people in situations like yours. They can help you to explore why you struggle to control your laughter, what’s behind that urge, and address those things with the aim of curbing your inappropriate laughter.
A good place to get professional help is the website BetterHelp.com – here, you’ll be able to connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.
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