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What’s so funny? Why we laugh when we’re nervous or uncomfortable

While on the phone with a local utility company, Kiersten, a 27-year-old woman from Michigan, started to giggle. There was nothing particularly funny about the call. No jokes were cracked or funny comments made. In fact, the customer service rep didn’t seem in the mood for chatter. Yet, Kiersten had to suppress her snickers the best she could under her breath. When the call ended, she continued to laugh for a few more exasperated moments, until she felt a sense of relief.

This isn’t the first time Kiersten has experienced this. She remembers breaking into a fit of laughter as a kid when she entered an elevator while surrounded by businesspeople. She knew her laughter was out of place and inappropriate, but that only made her giggle more. That's the first time Kiersten says she was overcome by uncontrollable laughter, something she is certain she inherited from her mother, who is also notorious for uncontrollable laughter. This seemingly illogical reaction, laughing when we’re nervous or uncomfortable, is not uncommon. Everyone has a story about someone laughing or giggling when it’s least appropriate, even rude, but most people have no control over it. But are outbursts like Kiersten’s just isolated nervous reactions, or do they serve a psychological purpose?

According to clinical psychologist Joe Nowinski, laughter has the effect of discharging energy and helping us relax. “When we laugh at a good joke or a comic routine, we tend to feel more relaxed afterward. Nervous laughter serves a similar function, allowing the individual to discharge anxiety and relax a bit,” he says. Margaret Clark, professor of psychology at Yale University and co-author of the study “Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion”, says that nervous laughter has the same general form as laughter associated with humor, however, she does not think it signals amusement or happiness. “Perhaps laughter serves a self-regulation function. That is, it is ordinarily associated with happiness and may help to down-regulate the nervousness. Or perhaps, laughter in combination with nervousness suggests to other people around the person that they too should help down-regulate that nervousness,” she speculates. Clark and her colleagues’ study suggests that when we experience extremely high or low emotions, such as deep sadness or escalating uneasiness, we can feel physiologically overwhelmed and have difficulty functioning—approaching an unmanageable, emotional limit. Emotional homeostasis, or emotional balance, allows us to better control our cognitive, social, and psychological functions. Laughter serves as one mechanism that can help regulate our emotional state.

Laughter also activates the endorphin system in the brain, says Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, who has conducted extensive studies on the effect of laughter on people’s ability to withstand pain. According to Dunbar’s research, the endorphins released by laughter activate the same receptors as drugs like heroin, with pain-killing and euphoria-producing effects. In a previous interview, Dunbar stated that laughter may have been favored by evolution because it helped bring human groups together and that it is a bonding mechanism that even primates use. “Laughter is actually derived from the monkey play invitation signal, the so-called ROM, or Relaxed Open-Mouth, display,” he says. ROM is a facial display, or “play face” used by primates during play behavior, where the mouth is open but the teeth are covered—a sign of submissiveness. Laughter aside, there are many examples of responding to a negative or positive experience with the opposite expected emotion. Crying tears of joy at a wedding, for example, or laughing at a funeral. “We call the experience of a single emotion which gives rise to an expression normatively consistent with a different emotion incongruous (or “dimorphous”) expressions of emotion,” says Clark. These incongruous emotions may serve a fundamental role in the human experience. According to the Emotional Regulation and Temperament Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, from a neurobiological perspective, various parts of the brain have been increasingly implicated in emotion regulation processes, which are critical to health and social development. Better emotion regulation has been linked with social and academic competence, as well as greater language and moral development. Several studies conducted at Stanford University’s Psychophysiology Laboratory have shown that just believing you can regulate your emotional state has been linked to “increased levels of well-being and decreased psychological distress.” Still, illogical laughter can cause worry and distress. Kiersten says she feels anxious about the onset of giggling at inopportune moments and finds that the worry triggers social anxiety.

“People who feel that they suffer from frequent social anxiety can benefit from practicing strategies such as mindfulness meditation,” suggests Nowinski. For others, nervous laughter may become habitual and interfere with social situations or their work environment. In extreme cases, experts suggest speaking with a physician or psychologist. Dunbar advises against suppressing this emotional response whenever possible as “it helps calm us and it signals submissiveness to those we are interacting with.” So, the next time you see someone overcome with giggles for no apparent reason, don’t be quick to think it’s rude or inappropriate. It’s probably their body’s way of helping them cope and handle an emotional overload.

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