Irony is a serious thing : it is a great human resource, even though Freud has labeled it as a defense mechanism.

Lately, its importance has been revaluated in therapy, and this element has been considered a facilitating resource for the construction of the therapeutic relationship .

The role of humor in psychotherapy

Humor stimulates laughter and, as we know, physiological stimulation through laughter has a number of health benefits. It is associated with a reduction in stress, and also appears to increase tolerance to pain.

But, in addition to this, laughter also helps us to have a satisfying emotional experience. Not only does it induce us to states of intense physiological activation. If a person is angry or sad and starts laughing because of a humorous comment made by someone around them, their mood will change instantly from anger and sadness to a more pleasant feeling, even if only for a moment.

That is why irony, as part of humour, can be a powerful weapon to combat bad moods and sadness .

In fact, recent research by the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor has highlighted the positivity of therapeutic humor by defining it as: “an intervention that promotes health and well-being through the stimulation, discovery, expression and appreciation of life’s incongruities and absurdities. These interventions can be used to improve health or be used as a complementary treatment for diseases either to cure or to face physical, psychic, emotional, social or spiritual difficulties”.

What’s the point of irony in psychotherapy?

Irony is an excellent therapeutic tool , because being able to laugh at something that is oppressing us, even if only for an instant, is a bit like decompressing accumulated tension.

The basic functions of irony in psychotherapy are these:

1. It is adaptive

It represents an adaptive and effective coping strategy to contrast painful mental states, offering an alternative vision of critical events. Through an ironic intervention, which leads to a modification of the rigid vision of a problem, the therapist can teach ironic aspects of an event helping the patient to live it with greater detachment and lightness and teaching to manage negative emotions in an adaptive way .

2. Increases ability to cope with problems

Increases problem solving capacity. As Borcherdt says, “If we can laugh at a problem, it’s solved.” Most situations, even the most difficult ones, have an ironic side, but living certain negative emotions prevents us from perceiving the funny side of them . With time, the decrease in the intensity of negative emotions puts the critical and painful aspect in the background, allowing us to appreciate the comic side.

3. Increase optimism

It acts as a mediator between positive emotions and a humorous comment, which can lead to experiencing confidence, optimism and happiness. In addition, irony allows for the expression of certain feelings that are experienced intensely. This expression is produced in a controlled and safe way. Irony also allows to express emotions and feelings which otherwise would have remained silent.

4. Improves the patient-therapist relationship

It helps to increase the therapeutic alliance, helping to establish and maintain the positive therapeutic relationship . During a psychotherapy session, a humorous comment expressed by the therapist can help communication between him/her and the patient, also decreasing resistance to the sessions, since it leads to a more relaxed and open conversation.

5. Helps improve self-esteem

Facilitates increased self-esteem: laughing at oneself represents a useful mechanism for the patient to reach self-acceptance and acceptance of one’s defects. Those who have the capacity to laugh at themselves present a higher level of well-being, since they develop fewer depressive symptoms and increase their tolerance towards negative emotions.

Indications for the good use of irony in psychotherapy

It should be kept in mind that humor and irony should be used as a complement to make the recovery process easier and more fluid, and not as something that is used simply because “it’s fun,” as this could disrupt the dynamics of psychotherapy. It is used as a way to interpret in a more adaptive way some facts that produce discomfort .

Furthermore, it should be remembered that irony and humour should be used once the therapeutic bond has been established and consolidated as such, at which time the patient can also use it in his or her comments to the psychologist. Otherwise, comments of this kind can be taken as disrespectful or unprofessional, which would greatly harm the progress of the therapy.