On Tuesday, certain corners of Twitter devolved into a stream of gallows humor, jokes about bunkers and apocalyptic memes about nuclear war. Despite the dark source material, however, some experts say the jokes are a healthy reaction to the news of the day.
The jokes came in reaction to Tuesday reports revealing North Korea had made another advancement in its nuclear program — to which President Donald Trump responded by telling reporters the country will “be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Even before North Korea escalated the rhetoric by threatening the U.S.-controlled Pacific island of Guam, Twitter users began to prepare, mostly in jest, for the end of the world.
Some experts say bleak humor can actually help assuage anxiety and serve as a coping mechanism. It turns out that laughter, even if it’s tinged with fear, really is the best medicine — at least up to a point.
“News like the North Korea rhetoric ... reverberates across all news channels as well as social media,” Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, said in an email Wednesday. “The number of jokes and parodies is a a positive, no matter the source. They can defuse anxiety.”
According to Rutledge, using humor is a way of “distancing” and “reframing” things that make us anxious.
Dr. Susan Weinschenk, a behavioral scientist who specializes in the intersection of psychology and technology, seemed to agree, saying in a phone call Wednesday that humor is “like a release valve for stress.” It’s a way of dealing with things, Weinschenk said, especially things that make us feel helpless.
“It’s cathartic: ‘I’m anxious, now I’ve heard that other people are anxious, we’re all anxious together,’” Weinschenk said. But for some people, that only works up to a point, she cautioned.
When there’s scary news and you can’t do anything about it, “Continuing to … read the Twitter jokes about it, at some point, after it relieves some of your anxiety, it will do the opposite — making you more anxious again,” Weinschenk added.
Weinschenk’s advice for anyone, especially when upsetting or frightening stories dominate the news cycle, is to turn off alerts and notifications so you’re choosing when and how much to check in on Twitter.
“One of the things I’lI always tell people is turn off your notifications, don’t have them on,” she said. “If you choose to go look at your Twitter feed, you can go look at it.”
She also suggested that users who feel anxious try to figure out some small action to take, whether it’s making a phone call or writing a letter. “So you feel [that] I can’t control this, but at least I’ve done something,” Weinschenk said.
Rutledge also suggested people who feel more anxious while looking at Twitter simply log off. “Ruminating on fearful and anxiety-provoking things triggers our flight-or-fight instinct and decreases our cognitive capacity to think clearly and effectively,” she said.
Even though humor can help, “taking a bit of a break from social media is always a good idea when you find yourself preoccupied with negative news,” Rutledge added.