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Humor in Therapy


Humor and laughter, in addition to being fun and enjoyable, have many health benefits. Laughter can help people cope with stress, reduce anxiety and tension and serve as a coping mechanism. Humor may allow a person to feel in control of a situation and make it seem more manageable. By helping to reduce fear, anger and stress, humor can help minimize the potential harm they can have on the body over time.

Humor can also help improve outcomes in talk therapy, according to a new study from researchers in Belgium led by Christophe Panichelli, M.D. In the study, clients and their therapist evaluated the frequency and intensity of humorous events, the effectiveness of the therapy, the working relationship with the therapist (the therapeutic alliance) and perceived hope. The study involved 110 clients who attended at least 10 individual therapy sessions.drop-the-label-movement-608463-unsplash (1).jpg

The researchers found a positive correlation between humor and therapy effectiveness, from both the client perspective and the therapist perspective. For people with more severe illness, there was less humor, but the association with effectiveness remained.

In therapy, humor can introduce a new point of view about a problem and help to reframe a client’s view of the world. Therapists can use it to reduce interpersonal tension with a client. Humor can also be used in therapy to communicate indirectly, to help deflate shame, to provide comic relief during stressful moments, to expose irrational thinking, and to help develop resilience. General social humor can be useful in helping lower the anxiety associated with therapy and building the client-therapist relationship.

There are times, however, when humor is not appropriate. Psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., identifies three examples: when humor is being used as a defense mechanism to avoid facing a difficult topic; when trying to address a serious, painful issue; and when a therapist uses humor that leaves out the patient or presents the possibility of misunderstanding.

Panichelli and colleagues note that while there are potentially problematic uses of humor in therapy, “most existing literature points out numerous advantages of using humor in an empathic, respectful way during psychotherapy.”

Humor can also be helpful in coping with everyday challenges, including mental health challenges. Victoria Maxwell, a playwright, actor and person who lives with mental illness, writes in her blog that humor helps her keep things in perspective and helps her heal from the “missteps that inevitably occur” because of her illness. She also suggests some rules for using humor related to mental illness:

  • Only joke about it if you’ve experienced it, if you’ve been there, done that. “Laughing at someone else’s expense doesn’t make you funny.”
  • Laugh with Us, Not at Us. “I don’t want you to make fun of me for (having a mental illness). But I do want you to laugh with me when I make jokes about it. . . . The humor I use is to help highlight the erroneous stereotypes and dispel the myths about mental illness.”
  • Timing is Everything. Allow some time to pass before trying to use humor. Laughing too soon after a painful event isn’t helpful. “But humor, appropriately timed, can go a long way to help heal.”



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