What Is Inappropriate Laughter?

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Someone who struggles with inappropriate laughter may find that it disrupts their everyday life as it can be embarrassing to laugh uncontrollably at the “wrong” time or at something trivial. Thus, social situations can become fraught with worry. 

Inappropriate laughter can be a sign of being emotionally overwhelmed or of an underlying neurological issue. Thus, it is important to distinguish between the two to know what to do about it.

This article offers a starting point for talking about the traits and causes of inappropriate laughter, as well as ways to cope.

Embarrassed woman laughing

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Definition of Inappropriate Laughter

Inappropriate laughter can be defined as uncontrollable laughing that is above and beyond the expected response. Sometimes it is referred to as pathological laughter.

One important thing to keep in mind is that laughter that seems inappropriate can be the exact opposite of the felt mood and is very difficult or impossible to control—for example, laughing uncontrollably at a funeral or even at something trivial.

Traits

Laughing is unique to humans. It is the psychological and physiological opposite of crying. The signals to incite characteristic movements of laughter (e.g., the corners of the mouth get pulled up) come from the bulbar region of the lower brainstem, which is controlled by the cerebrum.

A laughing disorder is out of a person’s control and can be a sign of a brain or neurological issue. But just because someone is laughing at an inappropriate time does not mean they have something neurological going on.

Sometimes we laugh nervously in uncomfortable situations, especially when that situation produces a lot of stress and anxiety.

For instance, researchers have suggested that when faced with extreme emotions, we can feel physiologically overwhelmed and produce dimorphous expressions, such as laughing when we actually are very sad.

In other words, laughter is a way to help restore emotional balance. Further, what is identified as inappropriate laughter as a sign of something deeper going on, like a neurological issue, has its nuances. Research on inappropriate laughter is ongoing.

Causes

Inappropriate laughter may be a symptom of a disorder known as pseudobulbar affect, which is associated with conditions of the brain and neurological system.

The most common disorders of laughing are due to pseudobulbar palsy, in which pathological laughter can be triggered by something trivial and be out of line with the underlying mood. It may also be in combination with crying.

Neurologic disorders commonly associated with pseudobulbar affect and inappropriate laughter include:

One reason why inappropriate laughter is often associated with neurological issues is that pseudobulbar affect is a consequence of brain signals being interrupted, which, in turn, affect the lower face and brainstem centers that are involved in laughter.

Pseudobulbar affect has been described as a “disinhibition syndrome,” where the pathways that involve serotonin and glutamate are interrupted.

To put it simply, conditions that affect the brain and neurological function may impact the parts that are responsible for triggering laughter. 

Treatment

As inappropriate laughter can be associated with dysregulation of neurotransmitters like serotonin, antidepressants have been shown to be an effective treatment.

Effective antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants. A different drug, a combination of dextromethorphan and quinidine, has also been shown to be effective in treating pseudobulbar affect.

Coping

While it can be embarrassing to laugh at inappropriate times, inappropriate laughter is not in someone’s control. Inappropriate laughter due to a brain or neurological issue can be difficult to cope with in everyday life, especially in social situations. This can lead to isolation, which negatively impacts mental health.

It’s important to remember that laughing inappropriately isn’t always a sign of an underlying neurological condition. Sometimes you laugh in response to something emotionally overwhelming, and that is the way the mind and body try to restore balance.

However, if inappropriate laughter seems to be more than an effect of being emotionally overwhelmed, it could be helpful to talk to someone about it. Speak with your doctor or a therapist if you feel that inappropriate laughter significantly affects your everyday life. They will have the tools to help you find the underlying issue and treat that underlying problem accordingly.

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