If you’ve ever been in a tense situation and have to hold back a laugh, it’s nervous laughter. You might also start smiling during inappropriate situations. It happens to many people, so rest assured you’re not the only one who experiences this sign of nervousness.

Nervous laughter occurs when you experience an emotion that doesn’t fit the situation. It can happen for many reasons, and knowing them can help you control the laughter. Many of the reasons are psychological, but there are some medical causes of the condition, too.

While nervous laughter might embarrass you, you can fix it. If you let it continue, it could interfere with your relationships or professional life. Look for these signs and make changes as necessary.

Twelve Causes of Nervous Laughter

There are quite a few causes of nervous laughter, and you might relate to a few of them. Think back a few times when it happened to you and see if you identify with any of these reasons.

nervous laughter

1. Nervous Laughter Is a Defense Mechanism

Nervous laughter can be a defense mechanism for some people. It helps them overcome anxiety and gives them a sense of comfort. When you laugh, it’s a way of making yourself believe the situation isn’t as bad as it seems.

Joking about something terrible that happened is a way for you to confront past trauma. It helps you heal, but others don’t always see it that way. You also might laugh if you haven’t fully processed the situation because it makes you feel awkward.

2. Coping and Healing

Laughing at a funeral is similar to crying at weddings, although crying is more socially acceptable. It involves deep emotions, and your expression doesn’t always match how you feel inside.

Studies show that nervous laughter can occur in response to dramatic or life-changing experiences. When your body must respond to something like this, you don’t always handle it as you hope or expect. Your emotions can be unmanageable when you feel overwhelmed.

Laughter also helps distract you from the pain associated with a negative situation. You might laugh as a way to forget about the intense feelings for a few minutes.

3. Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA)

PBA occurs with brief moments of intense emotions that don’t match the situation. Other than these moments, your emotions and mood are appropriate, and you can usually control them.

While the episodes are usually brief, they can still cause embarrassment and anxiety. It can lead to social isolation and withdrawal, interfering with your ability to live your life.

4. Asperger’s Disorder or Autism

A 2021 study shows that parents of children with autism report inappropriate emotional expressions from their children. People with autism don’t read social cues well and may laugh at things that aren’t funny. They usually don’t realize it’s inappropriate, even when other people aren’t laughing.

5. Kuru

Kuru is a type of infectious disease belonging to the class of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). It involves clumped misshapen protein molecules called prions that accumulate in your brain tissue.

This disease damages your brain’s cerebellum, where you’ll find emotional processes. Once this area of your brain gets damaged, it can lead to inappropriate emotional responses.

6. Hyperthyroidism

When your thyroid gland produces too many hormones, it causes hyperthyroidism. The hormones manage your cellular energy use and metabolism and can lead to many issues, including nervous laughter.

7. Discomfort or Nervousness

People tend to laugh when they’re uncomfortable. This situation can occur anytime some experiences nervousness or when something happens that they don’t like. It can also occur after a scary moment as a way to ease the discomfort they just experienced.

8. Seeing Other People Laugh Can Cause Nervous Laughter

When you hear or see someone else laugh, it makes you want to laugh. This experience even occurs in inappropriate situations. If one person starts laughing, you might do it too, even if you don’t think anything is funny.

9. Graves’ Disease

If your immune system produces too many antibodies and they attach to thyroid cells, it causes Graves’ disease. When the cells reach the thyroid, it overstimulates it and causes too much hormone production. It affects your nervous system, leading to symptoms including nervous laughter.

10. Feeling Awkward Can Inflame the Nervousness

When you feel awkward, it’s easy to start overthinking your behavior and the situation. Without meaning to, you might laugh nervously as a way to diffuse the awkwardness. This situation often occurs when you’re getting to know someone new or when there’s an awkward silence.

11. Anxiety Can Trigger Nervous Laughter

Research shows that nervous laughter is a way to release negative energy associated with anxiety. It can help you calm down and ease nervousness or discomfort.

Another study shows that nervous laughter can help restore balance, even in a distressing situation. This research goes so far as to say that all laughter, including during funny situations, is a way to ease anxiety. It bridges gaps between people, helping you feel a connection to others.

12. Reassurance

Laughing during inappropriate situations could be a subconscious way to reassure yourself that everything is okay. It makes you and those around you feel like the situation isn’t a threat or something you should worry about.

If you’re unsure about a situation, you will likely laugh nervously. If others question something you’re doing, you might have the same reaction. The laughter isn’t always accurately depicting a harmless situation, though.

nervous laughter

How to Fix Nervous Laughter

If your nervous laughter causes negative feelings, you can find a way to fix it. Some of the emotions you might experience include:

  • Weakness
  • Embarrassment
  • Guilt
  • Shame

When your nervous laughter occurs too often, it can cause issues in your life. People might avoid you if they think you find joy in bad situations. Or, it might hurt their feelings when you laugh at their hardship.

Other people might experience negative emotions from your laughter, too. They could feel awkward, confused, or critical about the behavior. To fix these issues and prevent the situation entirely, try some of these things:

Control Nervous Laughter by Doing Deep Breathing Exercises

These exercises help ease the anxiety that overstimulates your nervous system and brain. When you can relax, you’ll be less likely to laugh during inappropriate situations.

Meditation to Control Nervous Laughter

Quiet meditation can calm your mind and help you refocus. Rather than thinking about the things that stress you out, you’ll be more likely to focus on positivity. It promotes cognitive and emotional energy, allowing you to maintain your composure.

Music Therapy and Art Can Ease Nervousness

Creative activities consume your focus and stimulate your brain. You’ll be more aware of your behaviors and able to control them before the laughter erupts.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT can help you learn to stop your nervous laughter with conscious responses. As you become aware of things before you do them, you can stop them ahead of time. Then, you don’t even have to do damage control if you hurt someone’s feelings.

Treat Underlying Conditions That Cause Nervousness

If a medical condition causes your nervous laughter, you’ll want to treat it. Talk with a medical professional to discuss the best course of action.


Repeatedly counting to a specific number can help calm your nerves. Choose whichever number you want, and keep counting until you feel better. You can pair this method with breathing techniques for even more calming effects.

Improving Your Social Skills

Sometimes all it takes to ease your nervous laughter is improving your social skills. Focus on assertiveness so that you can handle difficult situations better. Learning to be empathetic can help so that you can connect with others on an emotional level.

Improving your social skills also requires socializing more often. When you don’t spend much time around others, it can make you feel nervous or awkward. Put yourself out there, spend more time talking to others, and you’ll become more comfortable.

Focus on the Person Speaking

Focus on the person you’re talking to rather than your thoughts. It helps you become less self-conscious, decreasing your risk of smiling or laughing. You’ll be more engaged in the conversation while forgetting about yourself for a while.

Use Positive Affirmations

Positive affirmations can improve many areas of your life, including how you respond to situations. If you often laugh at inappropriate times, try using affirmations to help you overcome. Use “I am” statements to help you focus on the person you’re talking to and avoid laughing.

You might not be able to stop the behavior entirely, but you can limit the occurrence. It’ll be easier to respond more appropriately once you learn to control it.


Final Thoughts on Causes of Nervous Laughter (and How to Fix It)

You might feel embarrassed or anxious about your nervous laughter, even though it occurs as a way to reduce anxiety. While it might help a little, the repercussions of the laughter aren’t worth the slight reprieve.

However, don’t be embarrassed because many people experience nervous laughter. It can be a beneficial tool when coping, but it’s best if you can control the nervousness that causes the outburst.

The methods discussed work for many reasons, from distracting you from uncomfortable feelings to quieting your nervous system. They can also reduce tension and help you calm down and think clearer.