Recently, as part of my research for my upcoming book (more on that in a future blog post) I Googled ‘how to break bad habits’ but in particular: 'how to rid yourself of a nervous laugh'.
To my surprise, VERY little in reliable sources showed up in the search results.
I tried again and again with a number of different key word searches, but still, there wasn’t a lot to read up on other than what it is and why it happens.
As far as I could see from my research, there was almost nothing on HOW to rid yourself of it.
A lot of my clients have a nervous laugh and it can be extremely frustrating (both for the client and especially for the listener) and once it's become an unconscious habit, it can be VERY hard to break (I know this all too well as I too used to have a nervous laugh and it would hinder so many my conversations).
However, with self-discipline, patience and the right know-how, any unconscious habit can be broken.
WHAT IS NERVOUS LAUGHTER?
A nervous laugh is often a physiological release of a negative emotion like anxiety, confusion, discomfort or stress a person feels in a given situation. For example, a lot of people who have a nervous laugh aren’t comfortable with silences in conversation and they feel the need to ‘fill’ the silence; others want to make others feel acknowledged for what they’ve said and feel the need to laugh – even when there’s no need for it (similar to the courtesy laugh to ‘move things along’). The nervous laugh is often a coping mechanism for a release in tension in conversation (if there even is any tension to begin with).
THE HABIT CYCLE
As I discussed in my recent blog post on ‘Stackable Cues For Habits’, a habit is cyclical and has three steps:
01. The Cue
02. The Routine
03. The Reward
Let’s look at a typical example of a nervous laugh. Maybe you’re inclined to nervously laugh when someone says something and you don’t hear them because you’re too shy to ask them to repeat themselves and your nervous laugh becomes your coping mechanism.
The habit cycle for this example wold be someone says something and you don’t hear them the first time (the cue), you nervously laugh (the routine) and there’s a release in tension (the reward).
The easiest way to break a bad habit is not to change the cue or the reward (because these are often out of our control) but to change the routine instead, in other words, what you do.
STEP 01. BECOME CONSCIOUSLY AWARE
A lot of people aren’t even aware they have a nervous laugh to begin with. Maybe there are, but they can’t handle the truth or even worse, they’re in denial about it. I was unaware for years (and why wouldn’t I be, it was unconscious and it’s rude to point out others insecurities, right?).
A friend of mine pointed it out to me (in addition to a number of other bad habits) and once I had this new awareness of it, I could begin to break it. If you don’t know for sure, ask a trusted friend if you have a nervous laugh. It may feel uncomfortable to ask (and hear the truth), but it’s worth it if you’re really interested in breaking it in the long term.
If you’re already consciously aware of it, then you can start to become consciously aware of when you do it and strategise how you can break it, in other words, start to take note of what your cues are (there’s probably more than one).
For example, in the aforementioned example, maybe your cue is when you don’t hear someone the first time; maybe it’s if someone asks you a personal question and you don’t know how to respond; maybe it’s after you tell a joke and no one laughs so you release your own tension (watch David Letterman do this); maybe it’s after you make a recommendation (my friend used to hum after he did this).
There’s lots of examples of what it could be. As soon as you identify what your cues are, write them down (preferable as soon as they happen). You’ll probably find there’s no more than three.
If you do this with friends, ask them to tell you ever time you do it. This will speed up the entire process.
STEP 02. CHANGE THE ROUTINE
Once you’ve noticed what the cues are, you can begin to implement your new alternative as a replacement. The key to ridding yourself of nervous laughter (or any bad habit for that matter) is replacing it with another habit.
For example, in addition to nervous laughter, I also used to litter my speech with pausers (also known as brain farts) like ‘umm’ and ‘err’. To break this bad habit, I recognised what the cues were and one of the cues was when I felt under pressure (like answering a question aloud in class) so one of my alternatives was to slow my speech down and if I still used a pauser, I repeat myself but without one. I also clicked my fingers when I felt the urge to do it. These both helped me a lot.
Ask yourself ‘what could I do instead of nervously laughing?’ Maybe it’s clicking your fingers when you feel the urge to do it (like I did); maybe it’s inhaling and taking in one deep breath through your nose and exhaling out your mouth, maybe it’s nodding your head once.
To facilitate the change more easily, make it something personal, but not something so dissimilar to a nervous laugh.
For example, I went from a nervous laugh to a sniff; a sniff to a smile and a smile to nothing (as far as I’m consciously aware of). This transition took months and months of practice but it was worth the hard work in the grand scheme of things.
STEP 03. CONDITION IT UNTIL IT BECOMES AN UNCONSCIOUS HABIT
The final step is to condition it until it becomes automatic. It’s important to celebrate small wins. When you do this, you’re consciously acknowledging what the reward is and training your brain to crave it.
So, with that In mind, every time you don’t nervously laugh, congratulate yourself; write it down, pat yourself on the back (literally), verbalise it aloud (in private). However you choose to celebrate, it’s essential you do it.
A lot of people, when undertaking a new habit, get discouraged when they ‘fail’ and break their new habit. The only failure with this is if you give up altogether. If you do fall off the ‘habit wagon’ and fall back into your old habit of nervously laughing (after all, old habits die hard) just get back on track. Repeat Step 01 and 02 if need be, maybe you missed a cue. It’s better to lose a little momentum and get back on target than to give up entirely.
A lot of people think they can just ‘will’ themselves to do it but research shows time and time again willpower is only so finite (research ‘ego depletion’) and habits trump willpower every time so with that in mind, don’t stop.
How long it takes is hard to say, it depends on the habit itself. There’s a lot of misquoted research on the internet that says 21 days (after Maxwell Metz assertions in his book Psychcybernetics) but don’t be outcome dependent, be process dependent. If you stick to it, you will overcome it.
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The picture is of one of my favourite ecards from Someecards.