I heard about a tragic story the other day, but because of the way in which it was told, I burst out laughing. The person at the receiving end was not amused. It got me thinking about other times when unwittingly I’ve laughed at funerals, and news about death and disease. What exactly is wrong with me?
A reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, asks.
Answered by Dr Harry Horgan, Clinical Psychologist, German Neuroscience Center
The experience you describe, while understandably confusing, is not uncommon. Psychodynamic theory suggests that humour or laughter is frequently used as a "defense mechanism" against threatening thoughts and feelings. The concept of death or other tragic events can cause significant existential anxiety as we are forced to consider our own mortality. This is where psychodynamic therapists would suggest that defense mechanisms come into play in order to protect us from the psychological pain associated with painful thoughts and ideas.
This tends to be an subconscious process i.e. we are not aware that we are undertaking a way of protecting ourselves. By laughing or seeking the humour in a bleak or tragic situation, our mind prevents feelings of sadness or anxiety from overwhelming us.
Psychodynamic theory would not suggest that it is "wrong" to do so as we all employ various defense mechanisms, but that it can be worth examining them, perhaps through therapy, if the defense is causing more problems than it is preventing.
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