The Misunderstood Stress Response Of Fake Laughter When laughter is used as a defensive response it gives wrong signals particularly in social settings

The Misunderstood Stress Response Of Fake Laughter

Most of us have indulged in some kind of fake laughter in stressful situations. We laugh when we are nervous and unsure what to do. In the face of danger. A human being instinctively adopts the most life-saving stress-response flight, fight, freeze, flop, friend. Laughter plays an intrinsic part in our social engagements and using it to deal with stress arises naturally for many of us.

Stress Response_Pretend_sexual assault_ Fake Laughter
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To smile when fearful is likely to be an unconscious attempt to engage socially with the person causing the fear. The social engagement system, or friend response to a threat, is evident in the child who smiles or even laughs when being chastised.

Emotions, Insular Cortex, Trauma

Traumatic events negatively affect the brain. The amygdala is the body’s alarm circuit. It processes sensory signals and generates a fear response by stimulating autonomic responses such as increased heart rate and blood pressure and involuntary muscle control. The amygdala is closely connected with the insular cortex The insula is believed to process convergent information to produce an emotionally relevant context for sensory experience. It is responsible for our social awareness and influencing our behavioral response to social cues.

However, childhood trauma disrupts this connection and we are stuck in a state of fear. Initially, this learned response meant to hide the emotional pain brings relief and comfort from psychological stress.

Over time one’s behavior gets locked into a default stress mode. We become robotic, acting incongruently to our present social cues.

Laughter As Survival Mechanism

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran suggests that laughter is used as a defense mechanism. It is used to guard against overwhelming anxiety.  Laughter often diminishes the suffering associated with a traumatic event.

People laugh when they need to project dignity and control during times of stress and anxiety. In these situations, people usually laugh in a subconscious attempt to reduce stress and calm down, however, it often works otherwise. Nervous laughter is often considered fake laughter and many times exacerbates the awkwardness of the situation.

Women are more prone to resorting to this defensive behavior, in order to act friendly. But this usually backfires. Men may misconstrue a woman’s laughter as a positive sign to their attempted flirting. This has led to cases involving sexual harassment.    Psychoanalyst, Jane Yates, cautions that fake laughter causes a cognitive dissonance. It tends to encourage bad or clueless behavior that preceded it.

When my uncle began looking at me lustfully and making insidious comments, there was no way I could tell him to shut the fuck up and get lost. It would mean being disrespectful. I was brought up to be the good girl. So when he made jokes trying to elicit my response my only survival response was to fake a laugh. Then I learned to laugh on cue and after some time it became a kind of canned response. He looked at me and I’d laugh. I became totally numbed to what really happening or what I was feeling. This further antagonized my furious, narcissistic aunt.

Fake Laughter Bad For Health

Laughter researchers, as well as mental health experts, recommend becoming more conscious of when and why you laugh. While polite laughter is gracious and kind in many circumstances, it’s counterproductive in situations where people are being inappropriate or offensive and discredits you if you routinely laugh when you don’t mean it.

A genuine laugh produces a mild euphoria thanks to endorphins released into your system, which research indicates increases our tolerance to pain. Feigned laughter, however, doesn’t have the same feel-good result. Moreover, having to pretend will probably leave you feeling sort of drained.

A fake smile does not use that many muscles of the face, particularly the muscles near the eyes. In a genuine smile, these muscles tighten, pulling the eyebrows down and the cheeks up, producing tiny crinkles around the corners of the eyes. French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne discovered that the tightening of the eye muscles lay outside of voluntary control, and was “only put into play by the sweet emotions of the soul”

Pitfalls Of Fake Laughter Socially

The sound of your laughter reveals a lot about your personality according to Dr. Greg Bryant. He is a professor of communication studies at the University of California, Los Angeles who was the key researcher in the study of human laughter.

Laughter is a non-verbal form of communication. It signals our acceptance and compliance within a group.  Laughter can play key roles in group communication and group dynamics — even when there’s nothing funny going on

Humans are incapable of faking a Duchenne smile, named after Guillaume Duchenne. Science has proved our wiring does not permit it.

One of the reasons why Hillary lost the  2016 election was her fake smiling and laughter. Particularly in situations which did not warrant humor. People were creeped out watching her laugh incongruous to the situation.  She came across as manipulative, phony out to deceive people. They saw through her sham and could not trust her.

Laughing as a way of brushing off difficult questions that require an honest answer only further social distrust. When someone smiles that much in a situation doesn’t call for it, you can be sure the person is hiding something.

Disgusting fake laugh of Hillary Clinton

Overcoming Defensive Fake Laughter Response

Fake laughter can lead to social confusion and can end up hurting those who use it as a form of defense. Women, in particular, need to stop, behaving submissively and learn to become more assertive.  Instead of laughing off an sexually unpleasant situation they need to stand up and protest or learn to get out of the situation. Instead of resorting to fake laughter and becoming sitting ducks.

Becoming aware of our social responses to stressful situations is crucial to overcoming our defensive fake laughter response. When we pretend to feel something we are only numbing our real feelings.

To live authentically we need to free ourselves from trying to please, accommodate or tolerate bad behavior. We don’t need to laugh it away. Fake laughter is not good for our health and neither does it help us socially in the long run.

Further Reading:

A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers by V.S. Ramachandran

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