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Ask the Mutant: 9 Steps to Keeping Your Sense of Humor in a Disaster

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Excerpted from Eva Moon's workshop on "Using Humor to Cope" at the FORCE Conference on Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer in Philadelphia, June 2014.

If it weren't for the brief respite we give the world with our foolishness, the world would see mass suicide in numbers that compare favorably with the death rate of lemmings." -- Groucho Marx

We've all heard that "laughter is the best medicine" and studies support it. But what do you do if your sense of humor abandons you in times of trouble?

Here are nine steps to keeping your sense of humor when the going gets rough:

  1. Seek out things that make you laugh. Everyone has a unique sense of humor and you're the world's foremost expert on what you find funny. Pay attention to what makes you laugh and look for patterns. The more you understand your own sense of humor the better you'll be able to access it when you need it. Start a collection that suits your taste so it'll be there for you when you need it.
  2. Seek out people who make you laugh. Laughter is contagious. Simply reading or watching humor is passive -- it's something you're taking in but not taking part in. We are social animals -- the benefits multiply when we share. Think about a time when you were out with friends. One tells an amusing anecdote and it reminds you of one you want to share and pretty soon everyone is in hysterics, right? Start a list of topics that will spark this kind of sharing. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: Biggest cooking disaster. Worst date ever. Funny pet stories. Most embarrassing moment.
  3. Avoid wet blankets. Wet blankets are great for putting out fires, but they don't keep you warm. Who are the wet blankets in your life? One, some people in your life are just plain downers. You may not be able to avoid them altogether if they're relatives, co-workers or people who depend on you, but minimize your contact with them as much as you can. Two, some people just can't resist sharing every horror story related to your situation. Don't let them! If someone launches into one, stop them immediately and ask if the story has a happy ending. If it doesn't, tell them you'll pass. Finally, you can be your own worst enemy. Of course you need to keep yourself informed enough to make smart decisions, but if reading or talking about it is becoming compulsive, take a break! Disaster won't strike if you stop for 24 hours.
  4. Look for the funny around you in everyday life. Incidental humor - the things you notice around you as you're going about everyday life are like humor super vitamins. Noticing them changes the way your brain works. There are two main reasons people miss the funny stuff. One, they're not in the habit of looking and two, they're so caught up in their own heads that they go through the day on autopilot. The trick is to get OUT of your head. That's where play comes in. Play helps you let go of the past and the future for a little while and experience the present moment. It doesn't have to be complicated. Try this: Next time you're in the grocery store, turn the all boxes of pineapple-upside-down cake mix upside down on the shelf. It's a stupid little prank but it will leave you feeling like a rebel.
  5. It's not a funny bone -- it's a funny muscle. Exercise it! Finding humor in everyday life might seem hard at first, but it gets easier and more automatic with practice. Don't wait until you're in crisis. How far do you think you'd get in the Tour de France if you didn't start learning to ride a bike until race day? If I asked you to find five funny things a day, would that be hard? Maybe. You'd probably forget and suddenly it would be 10 p.m. and you'd only found one one thing. But what if I said I'd pay you $100 for each funny thing you noticed? Do you think it would get easier? Yes. Because you'd be actively looking. Even if you have to force it at first, set up reminders and do it. Eventually it becomes a habit.

    From there to here and here to there, funny things are everywhere. -- Dr. Seuss

  6. Fake it 'til you make it. In a recent study people were asked to look at cartoons while repeating different vowel sounds. People who said the long "e" sound rated the cartoons funnier than the people who said the long "o" sound. Their bodies fooled their brains: The long E sound activates the muscles associated with smiling and that actually made the cartoons seem funnier. You don't have to be in the mood to start using your sense of humor. Sometimes it's an act of faith. Just start and it will catch up. I do this with sex too.
  7. Change your point of view. Sometimes you're too close to a situation to see what's funny in it. There's a technique called "reframing" where you try to step back from a personal situation and look at it as if it were a movie, in the past or happening to someone else. There's a great story about a woman who'd had a double mastectomy. One day when she went out and bent over to pick up the paper, one of her prosthetics fell out. Before she could pick it up, the dog got it and ran off. She started chasing after the dog yelling, "bring back my breast!" At some point she realized how ridiculous it was and ended up doubled over with laughter. It was a turning point in her recovery.

    Comedy is tragedy plus time. -- Carol Burnett

    What are the funniest anecdotes from your own life? I bet most of them were disasters at the time. But now, in hindsight, they're hilarious. Remember a disastrous period in your past. Did you go on to feel better later? The same is true for things happening right now: Some day, it will be in the past. Make this your mantra in times of stress: "I'm going to laugh about this some day." Maybe you will and maybe you won't. But I bet there is some small part of any disaster that will be amusing to share in the future. And if you're going to laugh some day, why wait? Don't feel guilty for laughing in times of tragedy. It's a sign of your resilience and will to survive. And it IS good medicine.

  8. Face your triggers. We all have things we're sensitive about. But you may have a trigger that makes you feel uncontrollably defensive. Do you ever wonder how some people can just come up with smart comebacks to insensitive comments? Do you believe you could never manage a cool reply like that? Planning and practicing alone or with a trusted friend can defuse some of the emotion and help you feel more in control. Whatever it is that really gets to you, at a quiet time, think about your triggering situation. Brainstorm responses. Google "witty comebacks to insensitive questions about X" and find a few that work for you. Practice them out loud to yourself and role play with a friend. Then, when you encounter it in real life, you'll be ready.
  9. Be gentle with yourself. I would never suggest that you need to be a clown all the time or you're doomed. Or you're doing something wrong if you go on a week-long crying jag. Experiencing and accepting grief is part of healing too. Laughter won't make your problems go away, but neither will tears. All I want is for you to have the tools to find a little relief.

A note to friends and caregivers: You can't force someone to laugh. Take your cues from your loved one, but don't be afraid to try some gentle humor and see how it goes. I was shaken out of a spell of grief by a silly limerick a friend shared.

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