Laughter is the best medicine: New study shows memes about COVID decrease stress

·4 min read

Laughter really is the best medicine. It relieves tension, improves one's immune system, is a proven antidote to depression.

And while a virus that's taken the lives of more than 700,000 American lives is no laughing matter, experts say humor can be a powerful coping mechanism during such challenging times. Indeed, a recent study published Monday in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Popular Media found that something as simple as viewing a few memes can be helpful in fostering positive emotions, mitigating stress and increasing one’s confidence in dealing with challenges like those found throughout the pandemic.

"We often casually blame social media for making us feel bad or stressing us out," says the study's lead author, Jessica Gall Myrick, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, "but if you use it in a more purposeful way, you can actually find ways to cope with the things that are worrying you."

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Myrick and a team of researchers surveyed 748 people to determine how viewing memes on social media influenced emotions, anxiety, and the manner in which they handled COVID-related stressors.

The researchers collected popular memes from websites like “IMGflip” and “IMgur,” but only showed them to half of the participants. The other half were shown something other than memes. Among the participants who were shown memes, some had captions related to COVID, while others saw the same image but with a different caption unrelated to the pandemic. For instance, some participants saw a dog wearing eyeglasses with a caption that reads: "Me when I call it Tar-jay instead of Target," while others saw the same image with a different caption, reading: "Me when I call it COVID-19 instead of the rona."

Among the study participants who were shown memes, some had captions related to COVID, while others saw the same image but with a different caption unrelated to the pandemic.
Among the study participants who were shown memes, some had captions related to COVID, while others saw the same image but with a different caption unrelated to the pandemic.

Other COVID-related memes included a baby with a triumphant look of accomplishment that says: "Stayed home, save lives," and a popular movie-within-a-movie image scene from the film "Home Alone" where a gangster says: "Leave it on the doorstep and get the hell outta here," with an accompanying caption that read: "Ordering pizza during a pandemic."

After viewing the media, participants were then asked to rate what they had seen and to answer questions about their levels of anxiety and various emotions; followed by a series of questions about the pandemic.

The results showed that the people who viewed memes over the people who viewed non-memes reported a flood of positive emotions. What's more, the participants who viewed the memes with captions related to COVID were more likely to have lower stress levels and a higher sense of coping efficacy regarding the pandemic than people who viewed memes that had non-COVID-related captions.

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"We learned that instead of ignoring and wishing away the thing that is stressful – in our case, COVID-19 – the humor of memes can help us more deeply engage with the stressor," Myrick says.

Another of the study's authors, Robin Nabi, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says humor is an important tool for alleviating stress in any circumstance. "Humor provides a way of reframing the events or situations in our lives so we see them differently," she says. "Instead of seeing the threat, which results in anxiety, humor leads us to focus on the incongruity or absurdity of a situation, which minimizes anxiety's power."

Another image showed two kittens laying on the same couch, but apart.
Another image showed two kittens laying on the same couch, but apart.

Left unchecked, Nabi warns that anxiety and stress could do lasting harm. "When we are in a constant state of stress," she says, "our fight-or-flight systems are chronically activated, which leads to a cascade of physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral challenges."

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It's worth noting people can experience such stress-busting benefits of humor without minimizing the emotional toll of disasters or challenges such as the pandemic.

Another key finding of the study showed that participants who viewed COVID-related memes actually thought more deeply about the content they viewed in addition to feeling more confident in their ability to cope.

And Myrick says their research shows it's possible for people to process COVID-related news without getting overwhelmed. "Some people suggest you should avoid media about COVID if you don’t want to be stressed by it," she says, "but this research suggests that viewing something funny and culturally relevant about this stressful situation can actually help you feel better connected to other people while dealing with the stress of the pandemic."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID memes decrease stress, help us cope with the pandemic: study