Gelotophobia: The Fear Of Laughter

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For a lot of people, being amongst happiness, and laughter in particular, is positively infectious and is a situation that we enjoy being in. However, for people with Gelotophobia, or fear of laughter, it is a stressful experience and not enjoyable at all but one that brings on severe panic and anxiety. Gelotophobia is not a very well known diagnosis but it is real and is more common than you would think amongst people in the UK.

What Is Gelotophobia?

Gelotophobia is also known as a fear of laughter or being laughed at. Since Gelotophobia is a relatively new concept, Gelotophobes may have received other diagnoses such as ‘specific’ phobias or general social anxiety disorder. A person suffering from Gelotophobia may hear a stranger’s laugh and believe it is aimed at him or her. They have a fear of being ridiculed and unfortunately often cannot distinguish playful teasing from ridicule. Gelotophobes either do not understand what laughter is, or they think it is directed at them in a negative, malicious way and feel scared when they hear it.

Many fear they are being laughed at, and linked it to bullying from their school days when they were often the butt of the joke. They often find being around people difficult and may suffer stress headaches, dizziness and bouts of trembling in social situations. 

 In the UK, 13% of people experience it to some extent. 1% of people experience it so severely, they are categorised as having a pathological fear of laughter, whereby it affects their daily functioning. This could be due to the UK’s culture of humour. Denmark has the smallest percentage of people with this phobia at only 2% and this may be because it is not acceptable to laugh at another’s misfortune there.

Symptoms of Gelotophobia

In extreme cases the response to this may be palpitations, breaking out in a sweat, or even violence. Sufferers have also reported feelings ranging from anger that lasted for days to shame and embarrassment. Gelotophobia Symptoms are generally automatic and uncontrollable and can seem to take over a person’s thoughts which frequently leads to extreme measures being taken to avoid the feared object or situation, what are known as “Safety” or “Avoidance” behaviours. Other symptoms can include:

  • Avoiding making errors
  • Avoiding social contact
  • Panic attacks
  • Inability to Relax
  • Feelings of dizziness
  • Prickly sensations
  • Aches & pains
  • Dry and Sticky mouth
  • Breathlessness

Where, When and How Does It Develop?

It is thought that Gelotophobia develops mostly around adolescence when bullying is common and teenagers are sensitive to others’ opinions and perceptions of themselves. As young adults, your identity is also forming and how you want to come across to others. If young people are made to believe that they are someone to be laughed at because of others comments and behaviour, this feeling can continue into adulthood.

The interesting question that has been raised by researchers is, what came first? Does someone have a disposition that makes them sensitive and there is a mismatch, which means they feel they are being bullied in the first place? Or could it be a straightforward response to bullying?

How To Treat Gelotophobia

The majority of people who suffer from Gelotophobia do recognise that their fear is “irrational” but continue to experience it regardless of knowing this. This is why simply being told to “snap out of it” rarely produces a solution.

Considering Gelotophobia is a type of social phobia, often rooted in past experiences, the most effective treatment can be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is a treatment that is about reframing your thoughts when you hear laughter and questioning how likely it is that others are laughing at you. Coping skills can also be taught so that even if you believe others are laughing at you, this impact on your self-esteem and mood is lessened.

As Gelotophobia is relatively new, there is some research into different treatments. One thought to be innovative is to show people with this phobia avatars with facial expressions gradually reaching a smile, they can desensitize their brains to it. Treatments for Gelotophobia may need to vary according to which factors are most present in an individual and which areas need to be addressed first.

All clinicians at Oxford CBT practice Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or are Psychologists, providing evidence-based interventions and support for a range of issues for both young people and adults. If you would like to book an appointment you can do so on our online booking portal. If you have a question please get in touch via our online contact form or call us on 01865 920077.


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