5 Tips on How to Use Humor to Manage a Trip to the Doctor


At this point in my chronic illness career, the file marked “Embarrassing Moments” has gotten so thick it now comprises multiple sets of three-ring binders and threatens to open its own library. There are only so many times you can wear a hospital gown or poop in front of complete strangers where it is darn near impossible not to feel uncomfortable. (Don’t even get me started on the gynecology end of things). When faced with being at your most vulnerable, often around people you don’t know, how can you deal with the humiliation and keep on moving with some dignity in tact?

Everyone has their own methods of pushing through the blood draws, fluid samples, poking, prodding and doctor meet-and-greets. My go-to coping mechanism has always been humor. While my brain tends to imagine horror scenes the likes of which would make “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” look like a cakewalk, I know making something funny is the best way for me to get through it. For example, with the help of my mother, the internet and an iron-on transfer, I walked into a lumbar puncture last year wearing a homemade “This is Spinal Tap” t-shirt.

While I am by no means an expert on humor therapy (for professional advice you may wish to visit the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor’s website), here are a few tips I have learned on how to turn a trip to the doctor’s office into something less painful than a kick in the teeth.

1. Discover the glory of story.

Assuming the aphorism that “humor is just pain plus time” is true, then everyone reading this sentence has enough material to craft at least one corker of a story. There is a reason why most standup comedians you watch have a less-than-comfortable experience of the human condition. As people, we explain the world through anecdotes and an overarching sense of how we as protagonists are slogging through time and space. With practice, it is possible to frame oneself as the hero of a comedy rather than a complete tragedy.

To be clear, this mindset is not the same as using the power of positive thinking to magically transform an objectively awful situation into a parade of unicorns and rainbows. It is taking a realistic view of your suffering and consciously choosing to ease your pain through levity. Imagining yourself as a character can create space between the emotional experience of an event while it is occurring and act as a scaffolding to hold onto. If you need to become an undercover detective solving a mystery, a celebrity touring on a press junket or a hobbit trudging through Mordor to gain a little agency, go for it.

2. Know before you go.

ER visits aside, scheduled appointments give you time to prepare for your procedure. I am the first to admit to being guilty of scouring WebMD for hours to find out what I should expect, the tools being used and to what degree I should grill my providers. Yes, it is good to advocate for your health by understanding what you are walking into, but I would suggest if you find yourself resembling an army general readying for full scale combat, you might want to take things down a notch.

Balance your research with books, cartoons, movies or comedians who make you laugh. Make a Pinterest of your favorite memes, a playlist of standup albums or catch up on comedy podcasts. See if you can find others with humorous renditions of your experience. Have a few good one-liners written down in your pocket next to your intake forms. Know that no matter what happens — positive or negative — you will have fodder for a journal entry or a sensational conversation to tell later. Unleashing the the power of creativity can divert energy away from the “fight-or-flight” systems of the body and ease you into whatever challenges may be on the horizon.

3. Keep your group in the loop.

Having a squad of family and friends with a similar sense of humor is key. Not only does a playful support network provide a psychic safety net but a built-in audience for when you are ready to process the stress. Using your mind to spin a yarn for a buddy, therapy group, or online blog can lessen the desire to “catastrophize,” or the proclivity to imagine worst-case scenarios. These people may also have a higher tolerance for awkward or dark humor that acquaintances may not.

If you have specific date for an appointment or a timeline for surgery and recovery, ask around beforehand if your comrades in comedy will be available to talk or just hold space and listen to you while you grapple with the chaos. Reaching out through text message for a chat while in the waiting room or hospital bed and exchanging banter can soothe nerves and raise spirits in real time.

4. Frame the pain as a game.

If internal monologues are not your style and you don’t feel comfortable testing out material on medical staff, create a game. Just like entertaining yourself on long road trips or through boring lectures, you can keep yourself occupied by devising rules for quirky challenges, creating scavenger hunts and tallying points. If you have an advocate or companion with you, get them in on the fun. How many different types of tubes or tapes can you count? What is the most common color you see in the patterns of nurses’ scrubs or office decoration? Can you write a list of “other uses” medical tools could have in the real world? (Please note that most facilities frown on using supplies as props without asking).

5. It is fine to take your time.

Everyone has a different rate at which they process stressful situations. Don’t worry about popping up with puns right after a procedure. As with any coping mechanism, the idea is to buffer discomfort. It is completely normal to feel upset, pain, anger and sadness. Humor is meant to add some breathing room in between your feelings and the situation and act as a catalyst towards transformation. With the intention to do your best to jest, sick can be silly. Remember, it takes a heap of compost to grow a bed of roses, and everyone’s flowers mature at different rates.

So, get wise-cracking and let levity lighten your load!

Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash


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