Humor and Stress, or How the Universe Gave Me an Opportunity to Practice

by Diane L. Gibson, 2004

Recently, I found myself faced with a number of difficult events at work. It seemed things were just crashing around me; the pressure was intense, the stakes were high. I was experiencing major league stress.

These untoward, unwanted events occurred after returning from a workshop where I had begun to design a session on humor and stress. So, in the back of my mind throughout this period what the question: How do I use humor to help me through this? How do I reduce the time between being caught in anger/ fear /frustration and stress and being able to laugh at the situation? I knew that if I would be able to laugh at these events, I would feel better and be more able to deal with the issues and problems.

First Attempts
OK. Yes, I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I’m pressured — I’m stressed. Growl, growl…. now what do I do?

Yes, I remember reading that if you cannot smile or laugh, then fake it. A fake smile can have the same physical affect as a real smile. So, I turn up the corners of my mouth. Reaction: "Damn-it, I Don’t FEEL like smiling!" End of trial one.

I remember reading that it sometimes helps to look for irony in the situation and exaggerate the outcome to its logically absurd extreme. "Yes, it will be real absurd when I end up without a job and living out on the street." Oops — this exaggeration doesn’t help to lighten the load. I must have of done something wrong here. End of trial two.

Over a short period of time, I tried several other exercises, usually with the same results.

I was still feeling totally caught up in the events — resisting them. This isn’t supposed to happen — how can these people be so disorganized — why can’t they get their acts together — No, No, No, No, No……..

Resistance. Resisting, fighting against what was happening. Resisting, fighting against myself and my attempts to deal with it in another way.

One day, I was talking (ranting) about my anger and frustration with a friend. Well, this led to acting out this frustration: stating my anger in somewhat exaggerated fashion (it didn’t take much) while clenching and banging my fist and scrunching up my face…….. She did this with me. After a minute or so, we both cracked up laughing. What we were doing and saying sounded so ludicrous and looked so silly.

When we stopped laughing, I felt a bit better. I was still bothered by the event itself, but I had been at least able to laugh at my own reaction to it. I found a way to laugh Around the stressor. That felt like a key. If I can’t yet find humor in the events themselves, at least I can make fun of myself and the way I’m dealing with it.

I kept trying different options. Ok, I could laugh by describing the dysfunctionality of the organization in which this craziness was happening. I could chuckle a bit at images of myself split in two in order to be two different places at the same time. And, I could put it out of my mind for a while by taking time to play and be silly with friends.

In the midst of the stress, when little time had passed, it was impossible for me to face the stressor head on. Intention and technique were not enough,

I was able to release and reduce stress by:

• Acting out the emotions in an exaggerated way — doing something physical to express the energy tied up in the stress — with another person who was

able to listen and empathize

did not get triggered or stressed by hearing my stress

did not feel a need to fix me or the stressor; could just listen

was able to play along with me.

• Using humor to laugh about the situation around the stressor, not the stressful events themselves

I also learned that it was difficult, if not impossible, for me to access humor in the midst of stress when I was alone.

Finding Humor in the Stressor Itself
While I had achieved some relief by laughing around the stressor, the stress/ frustration/ anger/ fear were all still there and continued to periodically resurface when something even vaguely similar happened. I needed to really laugh about it.

Looking back on stressful events in my life about which I can now laugh, I notice that the negative emotions originally associated with them are gone. I’m no longer angry, upset, afraid; those emotions have completely dissipated. And, I no longer have a stake in changing things about these situations. They just were; and they are funny.

I think there is a key here. One can only truly laugh at a situation once one has accepted that situation. It is what it is. Often the stress in events is associated with something that is out of our control, or feels like it is out of our control. But, we always have an element of control — we can choose how we respond. (Granted, choosing is not always easy to do; nonetheless, the choice exists.). Laughing at something requires that we accept it. Acceptance implies discharging the resistance and the angry emotions, both those that are legitimate and those whose source is our individual histories. It involves releasing our internal notions of the way the world ‘should be’, so we can see the ludicrous nature of what is. We can’t laugh and be stressed at the same time; we can’t get stressed when we are laughing.

This lesson becomes abundantly clear reading articles written for and by people who are trying to use humor to deal with physical disabilities, cancer, the death of a loved one. We can use techniques to help lighten up, to take things less seriously, to focus more on the present moment and try to find joy in this moment. You can’t laugh while railing against fate.

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