Stress-Related Humor in The Time of Coronavirus

It’s my experience that nurses and doctors, during times of severe stress from the responsibilities of crisis care, sometimes make jokes among ourselves. 

The jokes, if they occur, follow a crisis. They’re fueled by the intensity of hours worked without a break, food, or bathroom visit. They express the fear that was shoved down in order to highly function during an attempt to save lives.

ink and colored pencil by Julianna Paradisi 2020

Healthcare workers aren’t the only people who experience stress-related humor. It’s part of being human through difficult challenges.

During the coronavirus pandemic, I’m reminded of the function of stress-related humor while scrolling through posts on social media. The jokes are not inappropriate, mostly puns about coronavirus, expressing the collective anxiety worldwide. I recognize the jokes for what they are, and acknowledge my own stress level as my husband and I prepared for the stay at home order in Oregon, as the coronavirus continues its relentless march. Faced with the unknown, our preparations are based on what has happened in China, and Europe. 

There’s a difference between preparation and panic. We utilize our knowledge of healthcare to make the best choices available when confronted with uncertainty.

 I doubt I’m the only nurse who feels she needs to think ahead as far as possible, and do her very best to protect her loved ones. We’re taught to think critically, and at our best, proactively. There’s so many variables though, so many things I might not have thought of in advance. It has surprised me how much this feels like the stress I felt as a pediatric intensive care nurse at the beginning of my career, waiting for an admission known to be near death, and wondering, “Do I have all the equipment I need ready? Do I have all the skills this child will need?” 

For instance, my husband and I made shopping lists before going to the grocery store. We wanted to prepare for the probable a stay at home order, and possibly quarantine, but we did not want to take more than we realistically need, thereby denying other’s of what they might also need. We took an inventory of what was in our pantry, and thought about what items would round out what we already have to make meals.

 I also put together a kit of OTC (over the counter) medications and first aid items, with the idea of managing minor health problems, not necessarily related to the coronavirus, that could arise. Avoiding a visit to the ED prevents taking the much needed time and attention of nurses and doctors away from people who need it more. 

Our kit contains acetaminophen, ibuprofen, an acid reducer, chewable antacids, an anti-diarrheal, diphenhydramine, adhesive strips of various sizes, and gauze. Just a reasonable amount of each. I also bought a container of sea salt (non-iodized), that I can use to make a normal saline rinse, if needed.

But I forgot a cough suppressant. I went back to the store to purchase a small bottle.

Standing in line at the check-out stand, a young woman stood in line ahead of me. In front of her, a young man collected his bags of groceries. The clerk offered him a token for game prizes the grocery chain offered. The man held the token out to the young woman, and offered it to her. She declined, saying she isn’t playing the game. 

The words escaped my mouth before I could think, “But maybe you’ll win a cruise!” 

I laughed at what I though was an obvious joke, but no one else did. That’s when I remembered making jokes under stress as a nurse. I put my head down, intending to keep to myself while the young woman checked out.

Suddenly, as she was about to leave, she turned to me and said, “Oh, win a cruise. That’s really funny! I get it now.”

I left with the bottle of cough suppressant, feeling just a little better, for the time being.