Many things have changed because of the current pandemic, but one thing has remained a constant for several people: humor. From memes about how our hair will look when all of this is over, to cartoony talking toilet paper GIFs, plenty of jokes exist. While some people may laugh hysterically over some coronavirus-related one-liners, others may feel as though they’re highly inappropriate or ill-timed.

Why do people turn to humor during tough and fearful times, especially when it pokes fun of the very fear-inducing uncertainties we’re anxious about in the first place? Is this really the time for virus puns and cheeky song remakes about hands touching hands?

Humor Helps Us Manage Stress, Maintain Emotional Well-Being

Julia Breur, a licensed clinical psychotherapist with a private practice in Boca Raton, Florida says that quite simply, turning to humor during a crisis can be beneficial. “Humor as a coping strategy occurs in response to psychological stress usually triggered by changes in an effort to maintain mental health and emotional well-being,” she says. “Life stressors include the new coronavirus pandemic, as well as other negative events such as death of a loved one, divorce and loss of a job.”

At the same time, Dr. Breur adds that positive life events such as a marriage or birth can also be stress-inducing. Either way, she points out that humor often finds its place.

As a coping mechanism, she says humor can help in a few key ways:

  • Form attachments with others; laughter binds people together
  • Lessen tensions
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Relieve setbacks
  • Help weather life’s disappointments

Humor to Help Alleviate Anxiety and Depression

Dayry Hulkow, M.S., a primary therapist at Arete Recovery, a Delphi Behavioral Health Group facility, agrees that people may turn to humor to help manage life’s stressful moments. She points to a bevy of research that supports the oft-used saying that “laughter is the best medicine.”

“There is robust evidence attesting to the health benefits of laughter both physiologically and psychologically,” she says. “From a physiological perspective, laughing can help relax the muscles as well as increase hormones, antibodies and killer cells necessary to fight certain diseases,” Hulkow adds, referring to a study published in Health Communication. In yet another finding, she points to humor’s psychological benefits in which “humor has been clinically proven to improve social competence as well as reduce negative symptoms of anxiety and depression.”

“Humor can be a powerful coping mechanism particularly when facing a serious crisis,” Hulkow says. “According to the ‘arousal-relief theory’ which was supported by Sigmund Freud, “humor relieves fear, rage, anger, anxiety, stress and tension.”

Who can’t relate to that these days?

“These are all very strong emotions that could have catastrophic effects on our physical and mental well-being,” Hulkow explains. She says that “Freud believed humor to be the ‘highest defense mechanism’ as it “allows the person to face a distressing situation without being overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions.”

“Many people all over the world are coping by following scientific, medical and governmental protocols which are adjusted as we learn more about this virus,” Dr. Breur says. But she adds that it’s not uncommon for her patients to turn to humor to cope for several reasons, not only ones relating to this pandemic. It’s a way for them to “deal with their troubled situations.” She explains that this may run the gamut from depression and divorce to substance abuse and the death of a family member, and yes, concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

Other Coping Habits May be Detrimental, So Consider Help from an Expert

Breur adds some words of caution, though. While humor can be a coping mechanism during challenging times, so too, can some unhealthy habits. “Humor is a coping mechanism,” she says, “but so is self-distraction, denial, self-blame, drug and alcohol use, over-eating and venting.”

Seek the advice of experts like Dr. Breur or Dayry Hulkow if you need assistance navigating your emotions and behaviors during challenging times.

Jennifer Lea Reynolds is an author and columnist with bylines in several national media outlets. Her children’s book, The Cat Who Loved The Moon, is about finding comfort during times of loss and change.