We’ve all had “those days,” where an unending deluge of miscommunications, false starts and technical mishaps obliterate every semblance of order and sanity. Often times, these are the very situations which try our feelings, pushing our emotions to their absolute edge, and it's here we’re most likely to succumb to the natural tendencies of injustice and chaos this post-millennial world engenders. We’ve likely developed our own knee-jerk methodology to deal with these situations. Those of us with strong wills might employ trusted breathing techniques or a 5 minute meditation to ease the tension. Others, those who wear their feelings a little more readily on their sleeves may chuck caution to the wind and resort to a pallid stream of obscenities or punching a pillow. As they say, "it takes all kinds."
Most of us know that these reactions are childish, but they’re immediately accessible in our mental reservoirs, veritable low-hanging emotional fruit. We also know, unfortunately, that as immediately satisfying as they can be, they’re none too professional. Depending on the circumstances in fact, they can turn a neutral situation bad, and a bad situation much, much worse. Enter: humor and the oft used (abused) Hippocratic couplet “laughter is the best medicine.” Cliché though it may be, we can all cite a volatile situation that's been diffused with a well-placed wry comment or a quick appeal to humor. In these circumstances, we're forced to grapple with an important distinction, knowing that what’s happening isn’t exactly "ha ha funny," but that by laughing, or identifying something humorous amidst the direness and confusion, we can lend a sense of relief to oneself and the people around us. This applies to anyone in any occupational setting, but especially medicine.
When you consider the phrase "unpredictable workday," medicine should always rank high in that mental list. Within any medical practice or specialty, physicians and medical professionals deal with a barrage of high-stakes feelings, emotions and daily tasks. They must regularly broach heavy subject matter like illness and the potential loss of loved ones, and must communicate these emotions in a cogent, digestible and respectful manner. To complicate this environment, a physician’s schedule is never truly in their own hands. They’re wholly at the mercy of the specific workload of that day and must answer any specific call that is made for them.
It’s these kinds of charged environments when a physician, in order to be truly effective, must maintain a cool head and an emotional equilibrium that they may not be swept out into the emotional tides their job can bring. It's for these extremes that many have found tactfully-timed humor to be an neutralizing salve for the rigors of their day.
"Gallows humor" references the execution victims of medieval times, but the analogy (if you're willing to be just a little macabre) lends itself quite delicately to the medical sphere. After all, the term refers specifically to those who use humor to combat the painful feelings and emotions that can accompany subjects like terminal illnesses and even death.
Though a wealth of information regarding humor’s specific health benefits already exists (one might take the search query “benefits of humor” to Google, to see what I mean), and we've even big budget films on the topic (Patch Adams) but it’s still often a tough sell to work that level of humor into the medical setting. Emotions run very hot and the ever-present necessity of maintaining dignity and poise around patients deters many physicians from even going there.
Medical researcher Katie Watson doesn't see the benefits of such an attitude though, suggesting that “the claim that being a physician is so difficult that anything goes misuses the concept of coping as a cover for cruelty.” In other words, physicians, and patients, need effective coping strategies to help them soothe the extreme emotions they encounter in the exam room, and must approach them with a small degree of levity to produce a soothing balm to that which is serious, frightening or confusing.
Think of a pressure cooker, and a well-placed joke as a mechanism to re-direct corrosive and explosive feelings to a safe and controlled place where they will not do further damage to anyone. Not only will this "redirection of feelings" put patients at ease, it also makes strides in fostering good relationships with colleagues who will appreciate some of the “edge” being taken off of their work day.
Laughing At Oneself
Besides easing one's internal pressures, presenting a naturally humorous attitude actually renders you seem more approachable. Think about the level of prestige we place on comedians in this country, as if they provide us with a necessary service: to laugh. So often, the more self-deprecating their routines, the greater the audience reaction. I’m often drawn to thinking about my father in these situations. Though a smart and undeniably driven man, he could be forgetful and absent minded. Rather than getting defensive about his flaws though, my father turned them into jokes, material, to use on himself.
Self-directed humor invites discussion, it's a way for a patient to engage with the physician on a topic that isn’t coated with medical jargon, and helps them see their caretakers as human beings, not simple androids dispensing medical advice and information. It just might make their day.
Here’s where we have to add a caveat to all this "humor speak." Some of us are just naturally funny while some? They're best off leaving it to the professionals. I’m not suggesting anyone try to go all "Jerry Lewis" on anyone. Also, no one wants to be slammed in the face with a pie.
It also goes without saying that many jokes, particularly those that deal with heated subjects like race, religion, politics or sex, are an ABSOLUTE “no no.” We’re talking base-level humor here. An “ain’t that the truth,” or an “I’d forget my darn head if it weren’t screwed onto my body.” Remember, Comedy Central Presents isn’t doing a special in the office. You're just trying to lighten the mood a bit.
Still, one needn't be so stodgy. It’s certainly not undignified to use a little bit of tasteful humor to set the office or patients at ease. In fact, it’s something we’ve all come to expect from the dog-eat-dog society we sometimes find ourselves living in.
There isn’t always a "magic bullet" solution to the stresses that the average physician is subject to every day, nor can they truly choose their daily circumstances. Still, no matter what rotten veggies life may be throwing their way, they can aways choose how they will react to those circumstances. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine….you know the rest.
Gomer Blog. "GomerBlog - Earth's Finest Medical Satire News Site."GomerBlog. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
Mail, Daily. "Gallows Humour in Hospitals 'can Help Doctors and Patients Feel Better'" Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 27 Sept. 2011. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
Smith, Melinda, M.A, and Jean Seagal, PhD. "Laughter Is the Best Medicine."
The Health Benefits of Humor and Laughter. Helpguide.org, Dec. 2014. Web.
11 Feb. 2015.