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CYC-Online Issue 115 SEPTEMBER 2008 / BACK
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Humour, relationship and coping

John Digney

–Laughter is God's medicine, the most beautiful therapy God ever gave humanity”. (Anonymous, in Kraus, 2002).

I frequently recollect a comment that was made at a one day seminar during my first year working with kids. The theme of the seminar was on treatment of sexually aggressive offenders and the comment was made in the context of providing support for the staff in residential programs. In essence, the speaker stated that regardless of what internal and external pressure were coming to bear on an agency and regardless of budget constraints, managers must “never take away the coffee or the phones”. When probed a little, he expanded on this comment, stating that given our work is extremely stressful (with long hours, constant or potential conflict/aggression, very complex clients, etc.) staff needed access to coffee (provided free of charge to staff) and access to the phone (also provided free of charge to staff) to help us get through the long and difficult shifts.

This comment stuck with me for many reasons; it was really the first acknowledgement I heard that spoke to the issue of stress and providing a “coping aid”. It also hit home to me how (at least at that time “pre-cell phones) that we needed to be able to contact loved ones after times of heightened stress, and also how we drank so, so, so, much coffee. Yes, our work has its stresses, but is it the case that all we have to offer is coffee and phones?

This paper explores a third coping aid, something that is free of charge, something that is in constant use and something which many of us depend on “humour. More specifically, how humour is used in relationship as an aid to coping with the trials and tribulations we often face when caring for our young charges, so, “don’t take away our humour, eh”?

Resilience theories (e.g. Seligman and Czikszentmihalyi, 2000) decreed that all people have natural abilities to cope with challenges and that these can be varied and different. A common factor in many of these strategies is the use of humour. This is due to many factors, some physiological and some psychological.

It is of course the case that young people utilize this method of coping in their lives, however for the purpose of this paper I shall focus on how we, the adults, use humour in relationship with kids and colleagues as a way of dealing with many of the negative emotions or situations we encounter.

Humour has long been seen to be a mechanism for helping to cope with the harsh reality of life (or death), it can allow negative feelings to develop into positive acceptance (Maier, Bernstein and Musholt, 1989) and this is important. Much of the research pertaining to the therapeutic uses of humour in the caring professions relate to the notion of alleviating stress and much useful research comes from the medical and health care fields, particularly in nursing and emergency rooms (e.g. Moran and Massam, 1997).

I believe that a comparison can be drawn with such disciplines, specially when we consider the work of writers such as Dunne (1993), who points out that in relation to the therapeutic use of humour in psychiatric nursing environments, several distinct usages were identified, these included: breaking the ice (connecting), enhancing every day client to staff contact/interactions (communicating), diffusing or averting aggression (cajoling), anxiety reducing function (concealing), facilitating exploration of insight (challenging) and tension or stress reduction (coping). The words in brackets can be seen to relate to the uses I have identified in child and youth care “the last of which in this list is coping, the theme of this paper.

Some theories
Morreall (1997) discusses how in the time of the Holocaust, humour served three main functions. The first being a “critical function”, in that it helped focus attention on what was wrong and thus was instrumental in igniting resistance. The second function was one of “social cohesion”, creating “connection” and solidarity between the oppressed. The third function of humour identified during this time, was its “coping function”.

Mindess (1972) writes about using humour as a coping mechanism, in the context of outwitting oppression. He writes, “while they relished the play of wit for its own sake, this perennially oppressed people (the Jewish people) took particular pleasure in the use of wit as a weapon. It was a weapon of self-defense, for the most part, but it provided them, in fantasy at least, the satisfaction of turning the tables on their enemies–by giggling, smirking and acting silly, they can attempt to muffle the facts that they cannot stand to face” (Mindess, p118).

As referenced in an earlier paper in this series (Digney, 2008), Wooten (1996) has advocated that finding humour in our work and our lives can be a good way to lift energy levels and replenish ourselves from “compassion fatigue” “a feature that can be all too common in our work with kids. It (humour) can provide a different perspective on our problems and with an attitude of detachment enhance a feeling of self protection and self-control.

Humour and laughter can foster a positive and hopeful attitude. Chinery (2007) states that, we are less likely to succumb to feelings of depression and helplessness if we are able to laugh at what is troubling us. She speaks of humour being a “healthy denial of reality” and that humour can lighten up, “–the heaviness related to crisis, tragedy or death and is a safety valve both emotionally and physically” (p.178). Demary (1998) states that, “the safety valve of laughter has a way of releasing us to gladness and restoring normalcy”, (p.28). Of course we don’t want to deny reality, but when we read some of the case files, or talk with kids about the horrific lives they have had, unless we find a way to help process this information, we can implode emotionally.

People who use humour as a coping mechanism and who are quick to laugh at commonplace situations in the workplace enjoy a number of “psychological, social and physiological” benefits according to Mallet (1993). Laughter for example positively affects the body in a number of ways: It raises the body temperature, making us feel warmer, it lowers pulse rate and blood pressure, breathing becomes deeper and serum oxygen levels are elevated “thus reducing tension. These physiological changes can be unnoticed, but are very welcome when we have had a difficult shift or incident. In fact humour has been described as “heart therapy” and “internal jogging” by Tina Kraus (2002) who believes, “God created laughter to lift our spirits, lighten our loads, heal our bodies and provide a temporary deprive from our chaotic lives (p.12).

Humour in the health care system is used to help deal with delicate and tragic situations that occur. It helps develop cohesion between staff and in certain situations can dissipate stress by neutralizing conflict (White and Howse, 1993). Sultanoff (1995) tells us that, during a crisis the people closest to it, are most likely to integrate the crisis into their internal emotional being. That is to say, psychologically, they join the stressful experience with their own inner emotional state (I think this is something we have all experienced in our work). During these times we may not be able to differential our inner emotional self from the emotional experience of the crisis. However, with some distance from the crisis we become less likely to experience this cross contamination between self and crisis. The implication, he tells us, is that a distance may be created by humour as it reinforces perspective and creates a detachment. Those immersed in the crisis experience humour aimed at the crisis as directed at themselves and therefore, as insensitive. With the passing of time from the stressful event distance is achieved and those who were once close to the crisis may be aided by humour “ever heard yourself saying, “I can laugh now but it wasn’t funny at the time”.

By placing the stressful event in perspective, humour helps to make the crisis more manageable, though timing must be chosen carefully. Dunne (1993), who believes that humour as a coping mechanism cannot be used in isolation from other interventions, also stresses the importance of cues and signals (play signals), which are given and received by both staff and clients. These cues serve as an invitation to disengage from reality. It is important to be sensitive to the emotions of others with whom we experience a crisis and with whom we choose to share our humor. It can be a welcome distraction and stress reducer, or it can disaffect, irritate, and upset. Jefferson et al. (1987) suggest that laughing together (staff and clients) aids in the formation and maintenance of relationship and that this facilitates learning and the consequence could be considered therapeutic, helping each other cope with difficulties. However, if we were coming out of a situation where a kid had assaulted someone, the use of humour may be the worst thing to do, depending on how others experienced this, how the situation was resolved or how serious the assault was. Sultanoff (1995) reinforces this point, reminding us that when using humour in a time of stress or crisis situation it is important to note that individuals sharing the same crisis are likely to react differently depending on meaning each one places on the emotional experience of the crisis.

Dr Hunter C. (Patch) Adams has concentrated his work on the therapeutic properties of humour and laughter. Adams and some colleagues worked in a “free clinic” and used this time to experiment with humour. He found that humour brought him closer to his patients, it enhanced their relationship and “did not diminish the respect or trust of my patients–treatment of patients took place in the course of daily life as we took walks, did the dishes, or played together”..being there was the therapy. To us, medicine was “and is “the relationship between healer and patient” (Adams, 1993, p.14), Having fun and using humour allows for a coping with situations. He (Adams) professes that, “humour is an antidote to all ills. I believe that fun is as important as love.” Though humour itself is difficult to evaluate, he states, “the response to humour “laughter “can be studied quite readily” (p67). He adds his belief that humour is the foundation of good mental health and is an excellent antidote to stress.

I firmly believe that the processes involved in the therapeutic use of humour in medical and psychiatric disciplines translate into our work. The physiological effects are the same (lowering of pulse rate/blood pressure, deeper breathing and increased serum oxygen levels amongst others), the psychological effects are the same (aiding processing of traumatic events, distancing from or making sense of “reality” and providing a “connection” with colleagues during or after a stressful event) and the overall effect is being better able to cope.

A final note
Have most of us not found ourselves in the situation where we are standing around debriefing a serious incident, looking at what occurred, talking about how we acted, talking about how people in the “real world” couldn’t possibly understand or deal with our work, when suddenly someone would laugh (maybe nervously) or crack a joke or make a witty observation and suddenly we all being to laugh?

Someone walking into our agency as we stand in shards of broken glass, possibly holding ourselves from the kicks we got, wiping the spit from our faces and seeing us laughing uncontrollably would be forgiven for thinking we had gone crazy. What do they know about coping with our reality?

Perhaps this is extreme but I know I have been there, I know that only for the shared experiences and the comfort that laughter brings, there are time when I would have left it all behind and become an accountant or a plumber. Humour and laughter brings us closer together (not only colleagues but also with the kids) as we make our way through a process of coping with what are all to often the harsh realities of residential life.

I recall a night when things had been difficult, the problems had been many and varied and we (staff) had been visibly under pressure. As always the shift drew to a close (with most things resolved) we retired to the office to “regroup” and ended up having a good laugh. As I made my way to my car one of the kids called to me from his bedroom. I went over to say goodnight and he asked why after such a difficult evening we were all so happy and why were we laughing. The only response I could give him was, “you know what Dave, it’s better than crying”.


Adams, H.C. (1993). Gesundheit. Rochester, Vermont. Healing Arts Press

Chinery, W. (2007) Alleviating Stress with Humour. JPP, 17. pp. 172-182

Demary, D.E. (1987). Laughter, Joy and Healing. Grand Rapids. Baker Book House Ltd.

Dunne, B. (1993). Use of Therapeutic Humour by Psychiatric Nurses. British Journal of Nursing, 2 , 9. pp. 468-473.

Digney, J. (2008). Humour, Relationships and Cajoling.

Jefferson, G.; Sacks. H. and Schegloff, E. (1987). Notes on Laughter in the pursuit of Intimacy. In Button, G. and Lee, J.R.E. (1987). Talks and Social Organisation. Multilingual Matters. Philadelphia. Clevedon. pp. 152-216

Kraus, T. (2002). Laughter Therapy. Uhrichsville. Barbour Publishing.

Maier, G.J.; Bernstein, M.J. and Musholt, E.A. (1989) Personal coping for prison Clinicians: Towards transformation. Journal of Prison and Jail Health, 8, 1.

Mallet, J (1993). Use of Humour and Laughter in Patient Care. British Journal of Nursing, 2, 3. pp. 172-175

Moran, C.C. and Massam, M. (1997). An Evaluation of Humor in Emergency Work. The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, 3. pp. 26-38.

Seligman, M. and Czikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 1. pp. 5-14

Mindess, H. (1972). The Chosen People. Los Angles. Nash Publishing

Morreall, J. (1997). Humor in the Holocaust: Its Critical, Cohesive, and Coping Functions retrieved on 16th October 2007.

Sultanoff, S. (1995). Exploring the land of mirth and funny: A voyage through the interrelationships of wit, mirth and laughter. Therapeutic Humour. July/August.

White. C. and Howse, E. (1993). Managing Humour: When is it funny and when is it not? Nursing Management, 24, 4. pp.80-96

Wooten, P. (1996). Humour: an antidote for stress. Holistic Nursing Practice, 10, 2. pp. 49-56.


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