Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Using Humor to Combat Stress, Reduce Phobias and Decrease Intrusive Thoughts

Friday, May 23, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Treatment Techniques

Laughter. It’s kind of a big deal. 

I, to my benefit or my peril, have the uncanny ability to turn almost anything into a ridiculous, sarcasm-filled fantasy. If this sounds fun to you, humor may be just the ticket out of scary thoughts

The Psychological Benefit of Laughter

Humor may be just as effective at reducing fear as desensitization, a type of exposure therapy1. Even the simple act of smiling has the ability to improve mood according to David Eagleman author of Incognito8

But why would this be?

While smiling and mood improvements may be related to a mirroring effect, where our hormones respond in kind when we act in a particular manner, a good giggle comes with additional physical changes. Laughter leads to immediate increases in heart rate and respiration including deeper breathing and increased oxygen consumption2. This is then followed by a period where muscles relax, heart rate slows and blood pressure and respiration decrease2

Jokes make you chill. On a related note:

“Why did the man get arrested for throwing sodium chloride at his friend?” 

“Because that’s a salt.” 

Feeling better yet? 

If so, this effect may be due in part to changes in the endocrine system. Some studies show changes in endocrinological stress markers following humorous films, a finding that corresponds to self reported reductions in stress and anxiety3. Others note that laughter also reduces levels of cortisol, dopac (a catabolite of dopamine), epinephrine and growth hormone4.

In short, comedy makes your stress response system work better and decreases the stuff you don’t want floating around in your bloodstream. Score one for Def Comedy Jam.  

And humor doesn’t just work under conditions of lower stress. Even when subjects believed they would soon receive an electric shock, humor still served to reduce anxiety5. The subjects listening to humorous tapes reported themselves as less anxious, had lower stress levels as the shock approached, and showed more smiling activities during the anticipatory period. 

And if jokes can make you smile in the face of electric shock, it is surely good for other stuff. 

“Knock, knock.” 

“Who’s there?”

“Zap, mother fucker.”

Humor may also be used as an effective stress reduction technique in critical care environments6. Some researchers even believe that a humor-based program may be able to decrease stress eating behaviors, though more research must be undertaken to explore this possibility7

With all this great research (which I am taking as an invitation to find more terrible puns), what to do now? How can we use humor to challenge scary thoughts directly? 

Rewriting Scary Thoughts Using Humor

Rewriting scary thoughts can seem daunting, mostly because not everyone is good at poking fun at themselves. It's easier to do with things that are obviously fantasies, such as the fear of zombies. 

I have…ahem…reframed…with friends whose movie preferences run to the zombie-filled. After a particularly intense zombie movie, one such friend began to have zombie-filled nightmares which eventually provoked fearful discussions of zombie apocalypse. 

Before she made me map out the fastest route to Sam’s Club—where only those with a membership have a chance of getting in—I decided to embrace humorous reframing in an attempt to thwart said anxiety responses. 

Is it still reframing if they didn't know you were doing it? 

Let's say,"Yes."

At any rate, humorous reframing is more than just yelling, "Did you hear that?? I think it was a zombie!!" before screaming and pretending to be yanked out the garage door. It's also more than mock brain-eating after requesting the organs from your butcher. It may also be more involved than sending a friend every newspaper reference that may prove the existence of real zombies, like drug-induced Miami face-eating. 

I may be lucky that people hang out with me at all. Either way, her fear was short-lived and intense giggling replaced fearful Sam’s Club planning within a few days. 

While friends may induce this type of reframing by poking fun at an irrational fear, reframing things in an amusing way yourself is a little different, though no less fun. 

In the case of zombies, humorous reframing on your own could be as simple as pretending to be a zombie with your kids, exaggerating every element that scares you until it is so absurd that it ceases to induce panic when you think of it. 

This can also be done with things like the fear of snakes by mocking their slithery gait, imitating their strike in a silly way or talking smack about snakes to those bastards in the pet store.

"Yo momma is so skinny, she can fit under my door frame and kill me in my sleep!"

Before you mock that last one, snake smack-talk is a true story. And guess who no longer has a fear of snakes? 

That guy. 

Yo momma jokes are good for more than inducing anger in a momma's boy: they may be an effective scary thought changer if used correctly.

Outside the box, people. It's where the snakes live...and the zombies. So I hear. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
Useful information and tools for addressing obsessive or scary thoughts and the behaviors that go with them.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.