Amusing Grace, How Sweet the Sound

Amusing Grace, How Sweet the Sound

Getty/John James Nicol

Is there a place for laughter in trauma therapy? Our resident psychotherapist dives in.

I’ve been in therapy for two years, dealing with lots of childhood trauma and some abusive relationships in adult life. I really like my therapist. My time with her has been so healing. I’m comfortable crying with her, but what surprises me is how much we laugh during our meetings. I told a friend this and she wasn’t sure humor is supposed to be a big part of trauma therapy. She thinks the humor might allow me to cover over some of my pain. I’m curious about what you think. Is there anything wrong with laughing a lot in therapy?

KEVIN: What I think is that your statement that your time with your therapist has been healing is more important than anything I or others might think about your therapy experience!

Your question made me think of a training I attended with a trauma expert that I found to be quite humorous. When the microphone was passed around for questions, I asked her if she used humor as much in her therapy as she did in training sessions with professionals. She responded, “Oh yes. Traumatized people know quite well how to replay their traumatic emotions, but when we laugh together we’re learning that it’s possible to go somewhere else emotionally.”

A case during my training years also came to mind when I read your question. My supervisor told me: “Every clinician here has attempted therapy with her. You won’t get too far with her, but it will be a good training case.” A few sessions in, I asked if she would be okay inviting her husband to our next meeting. When they arrived together, I didn’t focus on her diagnosis (which was in a category called “severe and persistent mental illness”). I asked about their life together—how they met and fell in love, what their early years were like. They told me they had once been full of passion for each other, but over the years they had completely lost their sexual connection. They agreed to try some playful homework ideas I suggested for getting that part of their life going again.

At the beginning of the next session I asked how their homework had gone. They both began giggling and glancing at each other as if to determine who would fill me in. She managed to get out something about them going through a whole can of whipped cream before they both lapsed into uproarious laughter! I joined their mirth and we laughed together for most of the session. When they left I thought, “What was that? Was that therapy or something else?” By joining their laughter I was inviting them back to regarding themselves as full human beings rather than as a mental patient and her husband at a treatment clinic. When I left the clinic a year later, the couple and I had developed a close working relationship that was grounded in universal human energies, beginning with the humor we shared that day.

I sense humor might function in your relationship with your therapist somewhat as it did for me with that couple. For a moment, perhaps, it allows you to experience yourself not just as a broken person wondering if you will ever heal but as a human being still able to experience the simple gift of laughter with another person who knows and honors your story.

Theologian Karl Barth wrote: “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” Barth’s words dignify laughter, lifting it up from being considered a silly or shallow part of human experience to being one of life’s most healing gifts. Whether or not your spirituality inclines you to associate “God” with laughter as Barth did, I wonder if “amusing grace” (a term used by a spiritual director I know) might capture your experience of the healing power of laughter. When you laugh with your therapist there is a hopeful, playful human connection present alongside the difficult energies that come up with the traumatic life experiences you’re exploring.

It is true that too much humor in therapy can distract from getting to painful feelings that need to be uncovered. Many times I’ve had people share tragic things with me as they laugh their way through the telling, almost as if to convey that their story is laughable. Often when I ask if we can temporarily put the humor aside, tears begin to flow. But just as Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet encouraged couples to “let there be spaces in your togetherness,” a strong client-therapist connection can allow humor and pain to be present together in therapy. It sounds like you and your therapist can move freely between these two energies without being stuck in either. Used in the right balance, humor can free us to go deeper into pain, not to cover it up.

Trauma that occurs in relationships heals in safe, trusting relationships. Beyond the techniques or concepts that might be part of it, your therapy is an opportunity to explore difficulties in the presence of someone safe to help you reset closer to peace, acceptance, and hope. Trauma and its repeated triggering are full-body phenomena, activating the fight/flight/freeze system that affects blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and many other body processes. At its healing best, laughter is also a full-body phenomenon. This becomes clear when we remember a time humor led to spontaneous explosions of air from our lungs, tears in our eyes, or even a slight bladder malfunction! Laughter releases healing neurochemicals and helps our nervous systems move toward “regulation” (peace).

The flexibility to be light/playful and deep/vulnerable with another person is wonderful in all relationships. Marriage expert John Gottman teaches that humor is an important way to build friendship and defuse conflict with a partner. Deep platonic friendships often have a balance of enjoying lightness and confiding about deeper things. Being safe enough to go deep into pain one moment and laugh with someone the next is a great gift. And learning to feel safe in the world again is at the core of what healing from trauma is about.

Play is wisdom’s portal.

Play is wisdom’s portal
to the troubled mind.

Play is wisdom’s portal.
To the troubled mind
laughter is the best grace.

Play is wisdom’s portal.
To the troubled mind
laughter is the best! Grace-
ful and light is the hummingbird of hope.

From Now is Where God Lives: A Year of Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul © 2018 by Kevin Anderson

Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.

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