Picture a horrific accident scene. Nearby, two officers, seemingly unaffected by the gore, are laughing. To the general public, it may look like these officers are careless about the loss of life and the tragic scene in front of them. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Many of you have probably heard a similar cautionary tale given in the academy, or maybe from your better (and wiser) halves, warning you to “know your audience” as it comes to when, where and what types of jokes to crack. While this is certainly good advice, it is seldom discussed how dark humor may actually have important benefits and play an essential role in mitigating stress and trauma brought on by the job. It is no coincidence that dark humor, also known as gallows humor, flourishes among those who carry some of the heaviest burdens. In fact, dark humor serves as a coping mechanism, a buffer against negative emotions and a bonding catalyst.
Most officers and those who work with them (psychologists like myself, for example) notice that over time their worldview becomes a little more cynical and their jokes a little darker. Much of this may be due to a process of “desensitization.” Desensitization is a normal response that all of us experience when we are repeatedly exposed to something. It is the same reason why you may have to switch your alarm tone every so often, so that you don’t sleep through it. Our brains are constantly adapting. Even when it comes to particularly awful and painful experiences, our brains learn to adapt over time. It is inevitable that those who are first responders to pain and suffering of others would have to find a way to adapt. In fact, it would be impossible to do the job otherwise. Dark humor is a part of this adaptation process, which allows officers to cope with the day-to-day stressors they are exposed to. In addition, dark humor offers a way to talk about the event without the stigma of really talking about it; however, it serves the same function in helping mitigate trauma. Talking (even through joking) is a powerful way to lessen the staying power of a traumatic event.
Similarly, dark humor can serve as a buffer against other negative emotions. It is an opportunity to vent and release negativity. When negative emotions are bottled up, they may either be externalized in the form of anger and blame or internalized in the form of anxiety or depression. While I’m certainly not claiming that dark humor is the cure-all for these maladies, I do want to stress that dark humor provides an alternative way to cope with negative emotions. The ability to joke about a tragic event also provides a sense of regaining control. The opposite of this — a sense of a loss of control — is often associated with poorer outcomes in trauma mitigation. Not to mention, laughter (in general) has been shown to have a multitude of psychological and physical benefits.
Finally, sharing a dark joke with another officer or officers creates stronger bonds and facilitates trust. This bonding process is woven into the fabric of comradery and morale. Over time, these bonds continue to buffer and protect officers from the effects of long-term stress and trauma exposure. Humor has also been shown to be an effective training tool and can be an excellent way of passing on knowledge and advice that is better retained. Thus, dark humor is an inseparable part of first responder culture, and that’s probably for the best.
Dr. Mariya Dvoskina is a psychologist in Colorado with Nicoletti-Flater Associates, where the specialization is in the fields of police and public safety psychology, crisis intervention, trauma recovery and violence prevention.