Have you ever found yourself laughing at the wrong time? Nervous laughter can happen in a difficult or uncomfortable situation.
If you nervous laugh, don’t worry. You’re not alone!
Nervous laughter is a way of relieving tension and stress in a situation where you feel uncomfortable. But it becomes a problem when it causes rifts in relationships or makes others uncomfortable.
There are ways to overcome nervous laughter. But first, let’s define what nervous laughter is.
What is Nervous Laughter?
Nervous laughter is a stress response to uncomfortable situations. It is a way for your body to relieve tension or serves as a defense mechanism to avoid painful emotions.
Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran proposed that the original role of laughter in human societies was to show that the person or thing being laughed at was not a threat. It signaled that they did not need to be scared or worried.
Nervous laughter does a similar thing. When you laugh at something uncomfortable, you tell yourself it’s not a big deal.
The problem is that we sometimes laugh at things we shouldn’t be laughing at. Researcher and author Robert R. Provine, in his book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, writes that:
80% of human laughter isn’t caused by anything funny!
Provine and his research assistants analyzed 1,200 “laugh episodes” by observing and listening to conversations in public places. They found that only 10%-20% of laughter in these interactions was because of anything resembling a joke—so don’t think you’re alone if you laugh at something that’s not funny!
The problem with nervous laughter can hinder connection and relationship building, even if you don’t intend it to. It can hurt or confuse other people’s feelings if you are in a difficult or sad situation.
Why is Nervous Laughter Harmful?
Nervous laughter can be harmful to relationships by happening at inappropriate moments. For many people, nervous laughter is a way they help them relax and regulate anxiety in a given situation. People may feel like you don’t care about what they’ve shared with you or are laughing at something difficult they’ve told you about.
At the right time, laughter has many beautiful properties. In the short-term, laughter tends to increase the endorphins released by your brain. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkiller.
Laughter helps lower stress and, in some instances, has been linked to a boosted immune system.
“Laughter is the best medicine.”
Does that mean that eating some veggies and laughing a lot will get you through the winter without so much as a common cold? Sadly, probably not, but laughter can be good for you!
Laughter also helps foster connection with others—aka your social health.
It does this by being a positive emotion you share with those around you. Laughter helps people relax and feel comfortable and share a moment of mirth. Create more of these moments of connection by improving your humor!
Unfortunately, where authentic laughter can help foster connection and improve social health, nervous laughter can cause rifts in relationships and hurt people’s feelings.
So what makes nervous laughter different from regular laughter?
What Causes Nervous Laughter?
Nervous laughter is often the result of emotional or psychological causes, though it can link to several non-psychological medical conditions. Typically, nervous laughter is a way for you to regulate emotions. It’s a subconscious way for your mind to signal that you’re OK.
For example, you may accidentally trip in the grocery store only to realize a moment later that you’re laughing. This instance of nervous laughter may be your subconscious self masking how uncomfortable you feel at that moment and signaling to others that everything is alright.
Here are some common reasons for nervous laughter.
If you’re anxious, your thoughts and actions might not always match. Laughter can be a way to try to regulate your anxious emotions and signal that you’re OK. It can also be a coping mechanism to move from difficult situations and complex emotions.
Conversations around trauma
If you find yourself laughing while talking about trauma from your past, this may be your body’s way of distracting yourself from painful emotions you’re not yet ready to process. Laughter is a way to avoid challenging and painful memories.
This is also the reason many people crack jokes at inappropriate, tense, or stressful times. It is a way to avoid difficult emotions and relieve stressors.
You may laugh at awkward situations such as dropping a plate of food in a crowded cafeteria. Since laughter can be a way to relieve awkward tension, this may be your instinct for responding to embarrassment.
While someone else is laughing nervously
Laughter is contagious—even when it’s inappropriate. You may find yourself giggling in response to someone else’s laughter.
While witnessing someone’s pain
In the 1960s, Yale professor and researcher Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments on nervous laughter.
In his research, he asked participants to administer shocks of increasing intensity to strangers. The “strangers” were other Yale professors who weren’t shocked—but the study participants didn’t know that.
The participants were more likely to laugh the higher the shock intensity. They weren’t laughing because they thought it was funny to hurt someone, but rather because of how nervous and uncomfortable they felt.
Milgram’s findings help explain why we laugh when we see a video of someone falling.
How to Stop Nervous Laughter
You may be wondering at this point if there’s any hope for overcoming nervous laughter. As with any habit, it won’t change overnight, but it’s possible to re-train your patterns!
Here’s how to do that.
#1 Replace nervous laughter with a positive nonverbal
It’s tough to stop doing something simply. Especially an automatic habit like nervous laughter. The best thing to do is replace it with something positive. Any time you hear yourself start to nervous laugh or feel a nervous laugh bubbling up, try one of these behaviors instead:
- A slow triple nod
- A head tilt
- Murming ahh or hmmm as you listen or are with someone
- If you can, excuse yourself
This will give your body something to do to displace the nervous laughter.
#2 Notice your patterns
The next step to stopping nervous laughter is collecting data—what is causing your nervous laughter? It can take some time to identify patterns and habits. While brushing your teeth every night, think about your nervous laughter triggers during the day.
Do your best to foster curiosity rather than judgment. If you don’t realize how often you use a nervous laugh, it may be easy to feel discouraged or upset with yourself as you’re collecting data.
Remind yourself that you’re collecting this data so that you can make a change!
Don’t just think about what caused the nervous laughter. Think about why it was a person. A topic? A situation?
Action Step: Take a piece of paper and draw five columns (or open up a spreadsheet on your phone with five columns). At the top of each of these columns, write one of the following questions:
- Where was I?
- Who was I with?
- What happened right before my nervous laughter?
- What time was it?
- How did I feel emotionally?
Fill in the answers to these five questions. As you collect your data, pay attention to any patterns that arise.
Depending on the automatic response to nervous laughter, you may not even realize that you are doing it. Ask a handful of trusted people you spend a lot of time around to point out when you are laughing. This could be a partner, your work bestie, or a housemate.
#3 Identify your why
As you become more aware of your nervous laughter habit, try to identify what purpose it is serving and what is triggering it.
Do you laugh to relieve tension? Are you filling the silence when you don’t understand what someone has said to you? Is it a way of avoiding a negative emotional state?
Once you know why you’re laughing, you can set implementation intentions.
Action Step: Once you’ve collected data, think through why you’re laughing in those moments. What is the purpose of your nervous laughter?
In this step of introspection, journaling, talking with a trusted individual, or meeting with a therapist may be helpful.
#4 Set your implementation intention
Psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer researched the power of setting intentions. His findings show that when you set a sense for how you’ll react in a particular situation, you’ll increase your success rate.
An implementation intention is an if-then statement.
Once you’ve found a pattern of what is triggering your nervous laughter, set an intention for how you will redirect your nervous energy in that instance.
Here are some examples of intention implementations:
- If my partner brings up an issue in our relationship, I will slowly nod and try to imagine how they feel.
- If my manager gives me constructive feedback, I will take a deep breath and remind myself they are giving me an opportunity for growth rather than telling me I’m bad at my job.
- If my friend says something I don’t hear, I’ll count to three in my head before asking them to repeat themselves.
- If I’m in a networking event and feel overwhelmed, I’ll focus on talking to one person at a time rather than getting overwhelmed with the entire crowd and nod my head slowly while they’re talking.
Play around with your “if-then”s until you find a combination that helps you overcome your nervous laughter!
Pro Tip: Writing down the intention can help you adapt to this new habit quicker. If, for example, you know that your manager’s feedback causes you to laugh inappropriately, jot down your intention before going into your performance review.
Actions Step: Once you know why you’re nervous laughing, set your implementation intentions. These “if-then” statements will help you become more conscious of your habits and prepare you ahead of time to swap out your nervous laughter for more intentional responses.
Write your implementation intentions down and put them somewhere you’ll regularly see. For example, you could make it the lock screen on your phone or write it on a sticky note that you put at eye level on the door that you’ll see as you walk out of your room in the morning.
#5 Practice empathy
When you begin to laugh nervously while talking to a friend, please take a deep breath and try to imagine how they’re feeling.
The goal of empathy is to share the feelings of the person you’re speaking with. This can help you focus less on how uncomfortable you feel in the moment and more on how frightened, overwhelmed, or sad they may feel.
To do this, focus on asking open questions that don’t assume an answer. Here are some examples of questions that may help you achieve a more profound understanding and empathy:
- How was that experience for you?
- Wow, I’m so sorry they told you that. What was your reaction?
- How did that conversation impact your day?
It may feel uncomfortable, but challenging yourself to enter into the emotions they are experiencing can help you center yourself and stop laughing.
#6 Relieve tension through another means
Since nervous laughter is often a way for your body to relieve tension in a stressful situation, try redirecting your laughter energy with something else.
Here are some alternatives you could try to see what works for you:
- Tapping your foot
- Flicking a rubber band on your wrist
- Tapping your thumb and pointer finger together
- Deep breaths
- Coughing to give yourself a moment to regain composure
It may take a while, but try a few alternatives and see what works!
#7 Excuse yourself
We’ve all been there. Sometimes you start laughing and can’t stop—when that happens, go to the restroom or step outside for a moment and take a few deep breaths.
Often, just stepping out of the situation will help the laughter fizzle. Then, take a moment to center yourself before returning to the conversation that got you laughing.
#8 Apologize for inappropriate laughter
Depending on the situation, you may need to apologize for inappropriate laughter. Let the person or people you were with know that the laughter was coming from a place of feeling nervous rather than amusement.
Find the wording that feels most natural to you, but here’s one example of how you could phrase your apology:
“Hey [insert name], I’m so sorry I started laughing while you shared with me. I appreciate you trusting me with how you’re feeling. I struggle with laughing when I feel insecure or don’t know how to respond to a situation. I’m working on it, and in the meantime want you to know that I was not laughing because I thought what you are going through was funny. Rather, I felt inadequate to help you and didn’t know how to respond at that moment.”
Final Thoughts: Overcoming Nervous Laughter
We’ve probably all experienced nervous laughter at some point, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you notice yourself laughing at an inappropriate moment.
However, if you find yourself using it as a coping mechanism and feel like it’s hurting your relationships, use these steps to overcome it!
- Identify the pattern. Create a spreadsheet and collect data over several weeks. Please pay attention to where you are, who you’re with, what happened before you started laughing, what time it is, and how you feel.
- Track the answers to these questions until you start to notice a pattern. Maybe there’s a specific person, like your boss, who regularly causes you to laugh nervously, or perhaps it’s particular situations, like when you’re called on in a class or attending a significant networking event.
- Unravel your emotions and find your “why.” This can be a challenging step of the process, but it’s one of the most valuable. You may want to sit down with a therapist or journal through how you feel right before you start to laugh. This can help you understand the purpose of the laughter and think through different ways to replace this behavior.
- Set your if-then intention. Once you know why you’re laughing at inappropriate moments, you can start thinking through behaviors to replace them. Phrase them as “if-then” intentions to help you remember when to implement the new behavior. Write down your intention and put it somewhere you will see. For example, you could set it as your phone lock screen or stick a sticky note with your intention on the corner of a mirror that you pass on your way out the door in the morning.
Be gracious towards yourself! If nervous laughter is a habit, it will take a while to replace that habit with something else. In the meantime, beating yourself up over it will not help. If anything, it will only make you feel more discouraged and helpless to break the laughter habit.
Many people find it helpful to meet with a therapist who can work with you individually to help you identify and work through why you’re laughing in certain situations. Typically, nervous laughter ties to deeper feelings of discomfort or anxiety, and therapy is an excellent tool for understanding oneself better.
If you want to learn more about habits, read this article, Habits: How to Form Better Ones and Break Bad Ones.