How to Use Humor as a Coping Strategy in Life With a Health Condition

·6 min read
Friends laughing in a restaurant.
Friends laughing in a restaurant.

Legendary actor and humorist, Charlie Chaplin said, “In order to truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.” It’s true that most great humor comes from the pain points in life and that humor has important therapeutic benefits, but if you’re not a comedian like Charlie Chaplin, how do you learn to make your health humorous? Rather than make up some jokes or stories, here are a few tips using real examples with permission from personal friends of mine:

1. Focus humor on your own situation, not that of others.

By finding humor in your own situation first, you’re signaling to the people in your life that you’re trying to remain positive and perhaps open to a little humor. For example, my friend Melissa Emerson had recently lost her husband, then lost her cat in the same week. A couple of days later, she fell and broke her arm. She posted a photo on Facebook with this caption: “Because at this point, I can only laugh.” She thanked people for their sympathy, but also encouraged funny comments and GIFs for her broken arm post.

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Melissa with her arm in a cast. Photo credit: Melissa Emerson.
Melissa with her arm in a cast. Photo credit: Melissa Emerson.

By poking fun at her own unfortunate break, her staff knew they could joke with her. When she returned to her office a few days later, she started cracking up at the sight of herself as a cardboard cutout with the added purple cast.

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Cardboard cutout of Melissa with an arm cast added.
Cardboard cutout of Melissa with an arm cast added.

2. Ask for help.

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Perhaps you want to maintain a sense of humor, but you know it’s easier said than done most of the time. Another strategy is to directly ask your friends and family to help you find the humor in your situation.

My friend Amy Oestreicher already had a total gastrectomy (removal of her entire stomach) and was extremely nervous when she was told she was going to need a “multivisceral transplant” which is a serious procedure where they would transplant her intestines, pancreas and liver. She asked her friends to make her memes or send her funny things about surgery to ease her anxiety and make her laugh. I used a photo of her and made this meme which she loved and shared with others dealing with the same condition.

As luck would have it, her condition improved and she didn’t end up needing the surgery after all! Did I predict the future with a meme? Probably not, but she said the levity helped her stay positive during a very stressful time.

Photo of Amy Oestreicher with caption, "I was gonna skip that damn multi-visceral transplant, but I didn't have the guts."
Photo of Amy Oestreicher with caption, "I was gonna skip that damn multi-visceral transplant, but I didn't have the guts."

3. Think fun over funny.

Keeping a sense of humor is just as much about keeping things fun as it is about trying to be funny. My friend Casey Shank surprised her oncology nurses with her funky head wrap one day during her chemotherapy treatments for cervical cancer. It made everyone laugh and smile so much that she decided to create a new one for each treatment and eventually made a calendar for the hospital!

Casey's collection of wild head wraps for cancer treatment. Photo credit: Casey Shank.
Casey's collection of wild head wraps for cancer treatment. Photo credit: Casey Shank.

Ultimately, humor is not a talent. Humor is a habit. Our sense of humor is like a muscle that can be trained and sculpted — it’s a mindset. If you’ve already adapted a humor mindset and want some more specific techniques about how to make things (even dealing with health issues) funny, try these simple strategies:

Puns and Word Play

The easiest way to make a pun is to think of a word that is common with your condition, and then go through the alphabet to find a word that rhymes with it. Take “chemo” for example: bemo, demo, gemo… Nemo!

“Pixar should make a movie about me trying to get to my treatment center today… Finding Chemo.”

Or, think of a word that is common to your condition and what other meanings there are for that word. For example, arthritis causes a lot of pain in joints. The word joint has several meanings, so we can use wordplay to make our own funny headline:

“National Arthritis Foundation and Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons warn against cracking knuckles today in joint statement.”

Here’s another example, just for fun:

“After 60 years running, you’d think the Journal of Cardiology would have a higher circulation.”

The more often you do these types of exercises in your mind, the faster your brain comes up with them!

Exaggeration

Exaggerating things to a ridiculous degree is an easy way to find a little humor in situations and a lot of comedy writers use this technique. In fact, exaggeration is up one million percent this year.

Example: Instead of texting home and saying “Hey, honey. Huge line at the pharmacy. It’s gonna be at least an hour before I get home.” Have some fun and exaggerate it: “Hey, honey. Huge line at the pharmacy, gonna be a while. Go ahead and eat dinner, tell the kids I love them, wish them luck in college, and send pictures if and when they produce grandchildren.”

Rule of Three and Comparison

Recently, the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) partnered with Sun Pharmaceuticals to provide humor tools explaining the therapeutic benefits of humor and how to apply humor when living with a chronic condition like psoriasis. Two of the techniques, “The Rule of Three” and “Comparison” work great to add a little levity when explaining symptoms to friends or talking with physicians.

Rule of Three: You just list two serious things and then something funny, surprising or different.

  • Explaining your symptoms to a friend or a doctor/nurse: “My most common psoriasis symptoms are that it makes my skin flake, makes me itch and makes me break out in long sleeves.”

  • When the doctor asks you how you’ve been treating your psoriasis: “I treat my psoriasis with medication, light therapy and a vacuum.”

  • Explaining what psoriasis is to someone for the first time: “Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that causes a build-up of skin cells, scaling and an abnormal amount of conversations about lotion.”

Comparison: Simply compare your situation to something absurd

  • When the doctor asks how you’re feeling: “It feels like I’m wearing a fiberglass scarf.”

  • If someone notices some skin flakes: “It’s like trying to clean up when you live in a snow globe.”

When used as an intentional strategy to achieve a desired positive outcome, humor is more than entertainment — it’s therapeutic. You don’t have to be born funny in order to use humor as a coping strategy when dealing with health issues. Simply develop a humor habit, ask for help, keep it fun, and learn to experience humor, not by chance, but by choice.

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