What is nervous laughter and where does it come from?

Rashawn was in the middle of his business presentation; everyone was so attentive and persuaded of what he was trying to propose. One of his colleagues, Tom, suddenly burst into laughter without any reason to laugh at Rashawn’s presentation. Tom was not even holding anything like a phone or a tablet that could trigger something to make him laugh amid a serious discussion. Could Tom be just annoying Rashawn, or he might have remembered something funny. But whatever his reason be, Tom’s laughter was really inappropriate and unethical.

Can you relate to the scenario? That inappropriate laughter happens when your one job, your one job at that moment as a decent person, is not to laugh. But would you still laugh if your boss sends you a termination paper? That would be unfortunate.

Inappropriate laughter makes you and everyone feel bad. You don’t mean it, but those eyewitnesses think that you have a screw loose at that moment.

What is nervous laughter?

Nervous laughter is a physiological response to stress, tension, confusion, or anxiety. Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran states, “We have nervous laughter because we want to make ourselves think what horrible thing we encountered isn’t really as horrible as it appears, something we want to believe.” For almost 1200 “laughter episodes” that Psychologist and neuroscientist Robert Provine from the University of Maryland has studied, he determined that 80% of laughter isn’t a response to an intentional joke.

Inappropriate laughter or nervous laughter is also an incongruous emotion. You experience an emotion contrary to the situation, just like laughing when everybody else is sad or serious. People laugh, and it makes them feel relieved and feel good. However, nervous laughter is not real laughter but tightens up even further.

What Causes Nervous Laughter

A woman laughingSeveral reasons cause nervous laughter. Some research suggests that your body uses this type of mechanism to regulate emotion.

This is a defense mechanism of the body from emotional stress, especially during times where an individual is afraid, they might harm another person in various ways, such as a person’s feelings or even physically.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran’s book “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness” explored this weird phenomenon. According to Ramachandran, laughter first appeared in human history as a way to indicate to those around us that whatever was making us laugh wasn’t a threat or worth worrying about.

So, it is some sort of reassuring ourselves that whatever’s making us uncomfortable isn’t that big a deal when we laugh even in an awkward situation. This is an attempt of our cognitive defense to lower anxiety linked with discomfort or showing that you don’t fear the threat itself.

According to Ramachandran, this laughter helps a person heal from trauma by distracting himself from the pain and associating that pain with positive emotion.

Although it is weird, sometimes nervous laughter is a symptom of an underlying condition.

Medical Causes

There are underlying medical conditions that trigger nervous laughter.

Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) is a neurological condition. It is known as reflex crying, emotional lability, and involuntary emotional expression disorder. It happens when you have episodes of strong emotions that aren’t necessarily appropriate for the situation. Your mood and emotions tend to be just fine; otherwise, aside from these brief episodes of intense emotion.

Nervous laughter is often linked to neurological diseases such as stroke, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, dementia, Wilson’s disease, or brain tumors.

As surprising as it occurs, this laughter can just happen without emotional trigger because of the disconnection between the frontal lobe, (controls emotions) and the cerebellum, and brain stem (where reflexes are mediated).

A person with PBA has bouts of crying, laughter, or anger. The outbursts are out of proportion. For instance, a little joke yields belly-straining laughter, or a slightly sad scene yields exaggerated weeping. Or there could be rapid switching between laughing and crying.

How to deal with your nervous laughter

Good news! PBA is not a hopeless cognitive problem, and it can be treated. Initially, you need to have an accurate diagnosis. Your health care professional will advise you about PBA treatment options. You will undergo some series of interviews and tests to find out some triggering factors. It is also important to educate caregivers and other family members about the condition.