Humor can be an effective tool in the therapeutic process and in general when it comes to managing mental illness or negative emotional states.  Learning to challenge your depression, anxiety or maladaptive behaviors can be an overwhelming and arduous process.  Humor can provide a well needed break in this demanding journey, allowing both the client and the therapist come up for air when drowning in a sea of negative emotions.  Humor serves as a reminder that we are capable of experiencing joy, even if only momentarily, when we feel that sustained happiness is still not within our grasp.

Be creative in where you find humor in your life

Being able to see the absurdity in life and in ourselves is a skill that allows us to increase our resiliency-the quality most associated with life satisfaction.  It is frequently the human condition to feel shame or guilt for past negative behaviors or interactions.  Although we may need to change these types of behaviors or interactions, guilt and shame are not effective motivators.  For example …


You go on a first date that goes horribly wrong.
The food at the restaurant is horrible, the conversation is flat,
there are numerous awkward silences, and you feel confident that there will not be a second date.




It is easy to ruminate and replay the embarrassing night over and over in your head.  If you have been struggling with anxiety or depression, you could use the disastrous date as evidence that you lack social skills, that you will never find a mate in life or that there is no point in ever going on another date.  OR you could use humor to reframe the experience as ridiculous as opposed to devesting.  In this scenario, the client and I might work on pretending that the date was going to be made into a comedy and we have to give it a title such as  . . . .

  1. At Least I Didn’t Fart
  2. How to Tell if the Food or Conversation was the Worst Part of the Date?

Humor and distress tolerance

Humor can also serve as mechanism to improve distress tolerance.  Depersonalizing persistently frustrating people or situations significantly improves our ability to cope successfully in stressful times.

For example, I worked with a client who struggled with poor self-esteem and felt triggered whenever she received critical feedback.  She worked for a boss who was extremely critical, never offered positive support and at times was verbally abusive.  The client was actively looking for new employment, but had to tolerate her current job until she could find a new one.  Luckily, this client was masterful at using humor as a coping-mechanism. She developed the idea of  . .

Mean Boss BINGO.” 


She created a bingo card where she wrote down her bosses 20 most used negative phrases and she would mark her card whenever she heard her boss use a phrase with her or someone else in the office until she had BINGO.  Once she had a BINGO she would treat herself to something she enjoyed. 


This “game” served as a reminder that it was the lack of communication skills and the emotional reactivity of the boss that was the issue, not personal short-comings of the employee. When reframed in this manner, difficulty behavior is easier to depersonalize and tolerate. 



Concluding thoughts

Although humor is not appropriate in all situations and can backfire if not timed correctly, it generally serves as an effective tool in allowing someone to get outside of their negative thought spiral and see themselves and the world from a lighter point of view.  Actively look for the humor or absurdities in your day to day life.  And if you have the choice to “laugh or cry” at these unfair or difficult situations, I highly recommend the former.