Nervous laughter may seem to have little to do with emotional regulation, but it is a clear sign you are experiencing heightened stress. Consider it a modern-day fight-or-flight system maintenance check. Urges to laugh or smile during times of stress function as an alarm system which helps keep your body safe during stressful situations. And nervous laughter isn't the body's only way of communicating this to us.
Your high-pitched squealing laughter every time you go to a funeral, that smile you have when you pass on terrible news, or that signature floor pacing you do when you are on the phone - all these demonstrations of stress are your body's natural ways of trying to manage stress and get your attention.
Today, we're taking a look at some of these oddities and what they may be trying to tell you about your stress levels. Because though your body is sending you a message, and that can be helpful - you may desperately want to tone down that wild laughter at funerals. It can get, well, really disruptive (and pretty embarrassing).
- What happens in the body when we are under stress?
- What can happen if stress is chronic?
- What is nervous laughter and can you stop it?
- What are some other embarrassing stress responses?
- What are some stress-busting tips to help you cope?
Why Our Body Reacts to Stress
Nervous laughter is only one of myriad ways the body responds to stressful situations. But what happens in the body when stress occurs, either short-term, like that funeral you must attend, or more long-term like a stressful job, family dynamic, or care-giving situation? Whatever is causing your stress also triggers your body to do several things:
- Deflect the stress
- Avoid the stress
- Release stress hormones to combat cellular damage from stress
- Prepare you for a stress-battle
It sounds pretty dramatic like our bodies are gearing up for war, but we are genetically designed to do this: prepare for a fight or get away from something that may harm or kill us. This is aptly called the fight or flight stress mechanism and it's kept humans alive for centuries.
Hormones are released in response to a stress event, triggering the body's sympathetic nervous system to get to work.
A rapid chain event is started:
- Adrenal glands are triggered to release catecholamines: adrenaline and noradrenaline
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased breathing rate
- May create rapid heartbeat and breathing, pale or flushed skin, dilated pupils, trembling
- Excessive sweating
Aside from the health consequences of our body's natural stress responses, we can also exhibit odd social behaviors or what some may call "quirks." Some may also develop phobias or other irrational fears which could, if not well-managed, lead to panic attacks, avoidance, or isolation behaviors.
Why some people develop stress responses such as nervous laughter, exaggerated hand gestures, lip-chewing, hair-pulling or twisting, talkativeness, or other nervous behaviors isn't entirely understood. But nervous laughter specifically is so common that it is now more well-studied and given a term: nervous laughter syndrome.
Long-Term Stress and the Body
Clearly, the excessive beating of your heart, the influx of hormones running through your system, increases in your blood pressure, etc., will have long-term effects on your health if you are subjected to long-term stress.
Managing your stress and developing healthy coping mechanisms (and a positive, action-based attitude toward stress) can help you to protect your body (and mind) from damage caused by long term exposure to stressful situations. Long-term stress can lead to heart disease by increasing blood pressure and heart rate, chronically, which could affect your heart's health.
But, though we all want to be healthy and manage stress well, what about all that snorting laughter you do when you get nervous, which pretty much shouts to everyone around you: Hey! I'm too nervous to be here! That embarrassing stress response you have actually causes more stress - isn't that counterproductive? Let's look at your nervous laughter and some other odd or embarrassing stress response messages we get from our body.
Symptoms of Stress: Unusual Stress Responses
Acute stress responses, though important, can be bothersome if they are embarrassing to us, make us feel uncomfortable around other people, or attract too much attention in social situations. For many people who suffer with nervous laughter syndrome or other stress responses, finding a way to stop that reaction or temper it down a little can make stressful social situations a lot less stressful.
Nervous Laughter: What Is It?
Nervous laughter is what is called an incongruous emotion, meaning that the emotional response to an outward stimulus is inappropriate or doesn't fit the circumstances. For example, the overwhelming urge to laugh, smile, or make jokes when a situation is sad, stressful, or even dangerous. For some people, these urges can be quite powerful, creating an awkward or embarrassing response that can create even more stress.
Nervous Laughter Psychology
Though it isn't entirely understood, nervous laughter could be a way for your body to try and regulate your emotions, an attempt to lighten the level of stress you are feeling, or a way to "blow steam" off of a tense situation.
What may seem like a silly bodily response could actually affect your mental health. For many people who suffer from these episodes, it can create feelings of powerlessness, shame, anger, embarrassment, and confusion, and could lead to isolation, avoidance behaviors, emotional distress, anxiety, or depression.
Key to overcoming stress reactions such as nervous laughter is getting to the core of your stress and relieving it with stress management techniques and calming methods that work for you. It could be anything from deep breathing and other self-calming techniques to medications that calm anxieties, to more holistic approaches like drinking chamomile teas rather than caffeinated beverages when in social situations, prepping for a socially uncomfortable event with a calming CBD gummy, or practicing meditative behaviors prior to a stressful event.
Other Stress Responses
Nervous laughter is only one of many oddly placed defense mechanisms. When your physiology creates odd fear or stress responses, you may experience a number of varied responses. If you are experiencing nervous laughter or any of these other symptoms of stress, consider your stress levels and what you may do to alleviate some of that pressure in your life.
These may all be signs that your body is trying very hard to tell you something.
Pacing the Floor
Do you pace the floor when you're thinking through a problem? When you talk on the phone? Or when you are upset about something? This behavior can not only wear out your carpet and your energy but is a sign that your body and mind are under stress.
For most people, the pacing behaviors calm as soon as the stressor is alleviated. But if it does not, or if you are experiencing extreme behaviors that involve pacing, you may want to consult your doctor, as this could be an indicator of something more serious like a manic episode or psychomotor agitation behavior.
Similar to floor pacing is the tendency to turn into a "chatty Cathy" as soon as the stress levels rise. You may find yourself babbling uncontrollably when you keep internally shouting to yourself to just can italready! Aside from the social awkwardness of your babbling on, this can be a real indicator that you are feeling uncomfortable, creating stress for your body and mind.
Take some deep breaths, step away from the stress to calm your mind, and focus on stress and mood management techniques to regulate these feelings - and hopefully it will help you to better regulate your tongue. A therapist can be a very helpful tool to help you curb the long-winded tales and focus more on effective communication even when you are under pressure.
Do you constantly pick at your skin when you are in a stressful situation?
Dermatillomania or excoriation disorder can range from annoying and embarrassing behaviors to outright self-abusive and dangerous ones. This is a medical condition that needs to be addressed by your doctor. It involves a pattern of picking behaviors such as picking at the skin, pulling, tugging, or twisting of the hair, or picking at the skin around the nails. Brought on by stress and other underlying factors, these behaviors could be difficult to manage in a stressful situation.
Talk with your doctor and a therapist for diagnosis and to learn how you can manage these behaviors.
For some people, stress instantly makes changes in how they socially interact with others. They may wring their hands, find it hard to form sentences or say awkward things that don't fit into the conversation. For social shyness or the awkwardness brought on by stress, calming techniques can be of great help.
Talk with your doctor or go and see a counselor who can help you prepare yourself for social engagements, meetings, interviews, or other social situations where your awkward reactions could have negative outcomes for you.
Rumination is playing the same scenes or thoughts over and over in your head, and some people do this excessively when they are stressed.
While it's not an easy habit to break, learning to spot your own ruminations and curb them is a skill you can learn. Replace those racing and ruminating thoughts with positive mantras and with well-planned stress-busting positivity. If rumination has you so carried away you feel powerless to stop it or if you are missing out on sleep (which can be devastating for your health), then see your therapist for some help to curb those runaway thoughts.
Rumination is a clear sign you are under stress and that you may need to address an underlying issue.
Tears of Joy
Another incongruous emotion, which is actually sometimes rather pleasant, is a phenomenon we call "tears of joy." Think about it - why on earth would you cry when you are feeling joyful? This, like all the other stress behaviors we've mentioned so far, has roots in self-protective behaviors but can sometimes interfere with our modern lifestyles. While tears of joy are not an altogether unpleasant feeling, it could be annoying to burst into tears of joy every time your boss pays you a compliment.
If it's happening a lot, this could be a sign you are under stress and your body is looking for ways to relieve that pressure by a sudden burst of emotional release.
Manage Stress with CBD and These Stress-Busting Techniques
If you are experiencing unusual stress responses, there are some things you can do to try and manage it. First, you have to get your stress under control. Cognitive behavioral therapy, calming techniques, and other de-stressing methods can help to calm the symptoms of stress and help you balance your own emotional regulation without the body getting carried away with its own self-defense strategies.
A good stress management plan is also helpful to thwart health problems and shore up the immune system to keep your whole body more healthy. Here are some ways you can work to manage stress more effectively:
- Prep your mind with a pep talk
- Deep breathing, meditation, calming techniques, yoga, centering
- Remove heavy or chronic stressors
- Get therapy when needed
- Use calming things such as lavender soaking baths, chamomile tea, aromatherapy.
- Try CBD - it may help you feel more calm
- Get plenty of sleep
- Step up self-care when you are under increased stress
Nervous laughter and other embarrassing responses to stress should not be causes for shame, though it's quite normal to feel that way. We all want other people to understand us. We all want to present ourselves well - and it's hard to feel "put together" when you're roaring with laughter at your great Aunt Marge's wake. It's OK. Take some time to address the stress and make a plan so next time, you'll see that nervous laughter as a sign your body is giving you…and you'll know exactly what to do.
Thanks for reading today. We are cbdMD, a wellness company specializing in CBD and how it can improve your life. If you would like to see our stress-related products, you can do that right here: CBD for Stress.