While we would never want to rely exclusively on one protective style in life, or in therapy, humor can be incredibly helpful.
When I was in college, I worked at the Sanger Learning and Career Center. I was an Accounting Assistant and later a Peer Academic Coach and Communications Assistant. I did A LOT of professional development in Learning Theory – particularly among adult learners.
One of the quirky things I learned was that our bodies give us a bit of dopamine when we have pivotal a-ha moments. Our bodies reward us for LEARNING. The geeks really do win out, huh?
I learned that using a bit of levity while trying to learn something can help reduce anxiety. It allows you to relate to something in a real-world way and engages your attention (ahem, your pre-frontal cortex!) making learning much more effective.
What on earth does this have to do with therapy?
Therapy, in a lot of ways, is about re-learning or even unlearning. It helps you create new patterns in your brain and in your life.
If you don’t feel engaged in therapy or can’t relate it to your real life, then you aren’t likely to stick around and get much from it.
When we seek therapy we are often in a state of distress (not always, but often). Your daily routines, ability to fully engage with work or capacity to meet your goals might be out of reach for the moment.
Here’s the deal, though. Strategic thinking, the capacity to make decisions, plan your day, fight the urge to eat a bunch of sugar and solve your life’s problems are all reliant on your prefrontal cortex (your PFC, for short). On a biological level, what’s going on is that your limbic system is FIRED UP and becomes the boss, putting your PFC on the back-burner.
That’s why you might feel run by stress, trauma, or emotions.
Why does this happen this way?
Well, your prefrontal cortex is a baby. Evolutionarily speaking.
Your limbic system is MUCH older and thus wayyyyy more efficient at taking over when needed.
So when you experience a major stressor or a trauma, your limbic system will take over to save your life. Literally.
And that’s great.
But sometimes it’s still on hyperdrive when you are safe again.
Because our limbic system is more powerful than our prefrontal cortex, it can be hard to re-engage our prefrontal cortex when we are ready to get on with our lives again.
Which brings us back to humor and therapy.
First off, your therapist can be helpful because their limbic system is not engaged when looking at your life’s problems. Your therapist is not operating in that heightened state. So that “fresh” perspective they bring is in part thanks to the fact that their limbic system is quiet and their PFC is operating on all cylinders.
Humor, then, becomes a really cool tool for your therapist to reach you in an emotionally engaging way to help get your PFC back in the command center! From that point, you are able to create new pathways in your brain for a more healthful life. It’s pretty damn cool.
The other wonderful thing about using humor in moments of stress is that it gives us a little distance from the stressor and pulls others toward us. One of the most POWERFUL factors of resilience is social capital. In other words, your capacity to recruit people in your life to be there for you. Sometimes we lose this, but we can always create anew.
In the end, when times are tough humor is worth leaning into. Even just a little bit.