Nearly 30 percent of people suffering from neuroses actually may have a deeper problem - a fear of being laughed at.
Known as "gelotophobia," the disorder afflicts those who have been teased or deemed social outcasts during childhood or puberty.
"These people, due to being laughed at and feeling as if they don't belong, do not experience laughter as a positive form of communication," said Dr. Michael Titze, who spoke at the International Humor Studies Seminar, held during July at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond.
Titze, a psychology instructor at the Alfred Adler Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, has written seven books related to humor and health.
He is scientific organizer of the annual congress on therapeutic humor in Basel, Switzerland.
Citing what he calls the "Pinnochio Complex," which refers to the tense, "marionette-type" stance these people take, Titze said any child that doesn't fit into societal norms is at risk of developing gelotophobia.
"Any peculiarity, such as red hair or language difficulties, can be a source of teasing," Titze said. "Children who are teased by others may believe they are from other planets and that they don't belong on this earth.
"Some of these children may go on to become great achievers because they turn their focus to learning or other things they're good at," Titze continued. "Others may develop shame-bound depressions or social phobias such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or agoraphobia, the fear of being in public places. These phobias simply mask the true phobia, which is the fear of being laughed at by others."
As adults, these people fear social gatherings and try too hard to belong.
"It's a paradox; you try to be spontaneous, but you get more rigid."
Treatment for these individuals involves psychotherapy that takes the patient back to the stage where they haven't yet been traumatized.
In a group setting, patients are encouraged to act like children who don't know anything about being put down or not being liked by others.
"They also do role-playing, pretending that they are, in fact, Pinnochio," Titze said. "By acting like a puppet, they don't fear the laughter of others because they are now performing. Paradoxically, by doing this, they get out of the role of involuntary clown. They begin to appreciate laughter and smiling and being with others."
Parents who suspect their children may be feeling as if they don't belong can take certain steps, Titze said.
"It's important that children interact with other children, but those who are being teased shouldn't be forced into social situations. Rather, find another child who is accepting, and let your child be who they are. Parents should give their child the right to be imperfect, never expressing pity for something that may make their child different from others."
It's also important not to be overly protective, he added. Children who study all of the time, for instance, don't learn social skills.
"When they finally do get into contact with other children, they are deemed peculiar and are laughed at. Parents should give their children the chance to have a lot of contact with other children."
Pam McKeown is director of news services at the University of Central Oklahoma.