How to Stop Yourself From Inappropriately Laughing in Any Situation

Photo: Getty Images/Thomas Barwick
The other day at work, there was a fire drill, and while getting an extensive lecture about safety, I could not, for the life of me, stop laughing. And it was embarrassing. Here's the long and short of it: When the fire marshal started talking about elevator shafts and smoke penetration, I could barely contain my snickers thanks to the American Pie-level innuendos taking shape in my mind. But it wasn't funny. He was giving us tips to avoid tragedy, complete with anecdotes of real, tragic events. I used all my energy to breathe deeply and hide my guilty smile.

It's not the first time in my life that inappropriately timed laughter has overtaken me—and I'd bet that I'm not alone. You've for sure been in a serious situation but suddenly and nearly uncontrollably broken out into giggles, right? Let's call it funeral laughter, if you will. But just because it might be common doesn't make being in the midst of an ill-timed giggle fit any less awful.

"There is no 'good' way to make an excuse, nor is there a tried-and-true protocol for handling an awkward laugh," says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman. She suggests chatting with the person whose thoughts your laughs interrupted after the incident to share that your episode wasn't personal. "Explain why you were laughing, and let them know it was certainly not intentional."

Of course, the best case scenario is to stop the laugh attack in its tracks, and to help that happen, there are some strategies you can invoke.

1. Be a mindful master of your laughter

Gottsman says "taking several deep breathes" and "focusing on an object across the room" are both helpful methods. I prefer the exclusive Mary Grace Method, which has an above-average success rate: When I find myself near consumed by a giggle fit, I compulsively start gasping for air and try to focus on the most bland, sexless thing in the room. ("Wow, those white minimalist dining chairs are really an IKEA nightmare." This simple, meditative practice is usually enough to bring me back to Earth and the present moment.

2. Call upon an all-knowing friend to ground you

And if that doesn't work, you could always have someone hold you down to keep you from laughing. No, not in a literal sense; rather, Gottsman says it’s helpful to have a trusted friend "anchor" you with a hand on your arm or leg to calm you down.

“You need someone who is aware of your discomfort and ready to assist, sitting next to you,” Gottsman says. So this won’t necessarily work if you’re flying solo at a wedding and are internally screaming at the vows Unremarkable Steve wrote for your best hometown friend. But, if you’re with a pal who can read your vibes? It's great (and kudos to Jessie for kindly restraining me and my giggle fit during the fire drill).

4. Make a mental note to just laugh later

Another strategy? Delaying the gratification of laughter. For example, let's say you’re trapped in a should’ve-been-an-email meeting, and your work wife whispers something funny to you. Do you A. burst into hysterics and have to explain yourself to a joyless company exec, or B. fantasize about laughing later until the desire passes?

Well, when you’re trapped in a situation like this, a random laugh would be a real grade-school look, so clinical psychologist Nancy Irwin, PsyD, suggests making a mental “To be continued” note on your glee. So, go with option B.

“If it is impossible to extricate yourself from the room at the time of your laughing attack, close your eyes and picture yourself going to a comedy club or bending over, laughing with a friend after the meeting,” Dr. Irwin says. “You ‘put a bookmark’ in that need and allow yourself to indulge in it later.”

5. Write it all down

This is to another way to “bookmark” your laugher, and it’s particularly useful for during a work meeting. Essentially, it's why I bring my notebook with me everywhere I go—because, really, I never know when I'm going to be overcome with inappropriate laughter. With your pen and paper at the ready, Dr. Irwin recommends you act as though you’re taking notes and “write out that you are in control now and appropriate in this setting, and will enjoy the laughter later, even more.” And then, hopefully, that release will keep you from laughing then and allow you to do so later.

6. Leave, and then laugh away

As it turns out, laughter is some pretty solid healthy medicine, and indulging in that LOL life may just set you free by getting the giggles out of your system. “Sometimes we only want to laugh when we know we should not be doing so,” Dr. Irwin says. “It can be a juvenile or rebellious urge, and you feel empowered ‘breaking the rules,’ if you will. The antidote? Give yourself permission to laugh all you want. When given permission, the urge dissipates very quickly, typically.”

The only caveat? Gottsman and Dr. Irwin agree that you should try to GTFO of there (my words, not theirs). “You can excuse yourself and go to the ladies room, or a garage, and laugh your head off,” Dr. Irwin says.

Otherwise, take a moment and breathe in deep with me. Deep, penetrating breaths.

For some good news, those gut-busting laughs can give you a big, big mood boost. And even if it feels awkward, fake-laughing can make you super popular.

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