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Mental Health: Laughter is the best medicine

Citrus County Chronicle - 12/19/2017

"I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a lot more when they get older. Then it dawned on me they were cramming for the final exam." - George Carlin

Laughter is a universal response by humans to what they perceive to be humorous situations, stories, people etc. Still, what is laughter? How did we go from physical humor to verbal humor, and what are the already established benefits of laughter and humor?

These questions have been studied over the past century. By definition, laughter is associated with alterations in muscle tone and changes in brain activation. Humor is more of a sophisticated form of laughter and relies more on cultural influences, according to Steven Legare, laughter researcher at the University of Montreal. He also cites "nervous laughter," which is usually in response to subjective discomfort, such as "Jay fell off his motorcycle and is being treated in the ER" (chuckle). Though we have the capacity to appreciate humor, not everyone has the same level of access to laughter. Individuals can have a robust sense of the comic, while others can be dour and unsmiling.

Laughter comes in many forms: a cackle, guffaw, giggle, chuckle, howl, roar, and even convulsive laughter. It releases endorphins and gives a release of tension in the body and in the mind. We as a species are programmed to laugh. So, what are the benefits of laughter?

Researchers have been identifying its advantages for several decades now. It contributes to healthy blood vessels, according to Dr. Michael Miller of the University of Maryland, and Dr. Lee Berk believes it has a positive impact on our hormones. It enhances communication between individuals and groups. Laughter soothes psychic pain and even physical pain. It's really a universal reaction, although culture and personality helps define what is humorous and what is not. Personally, I don't find some of these TV shows that are predicated on insults and pranks very funny, but I know others who break into fits of giggles when they watch such a program.

Therapists have used laughter as part of the treatment process. Norm Cousins, the author who wrote "Anatomy of an Illness," broke new ground in the use of laughter to overcome disease. The author had contracted a deadly disease and was given weeks to live. He decided to use laughter as his primary treatment prerogative. And it worked! He astounded his doctors with his full recovery. Therapists have used laughter as an antidote to depression and panic attacks successfully. It has been used with caregivers exhausted by the demands of caregiving. It offers all kinds of therapeutic benefits.

There is a new form of therapy called "laughter yoga" (aysayoga) and "laughter therapy." Briefly, laughter yoga begins by clapping hands together (which activates acupressure points) and rotating your eyeballs. Now, begin to laugh like an innocent, silly child. Fix your eyes on the sky and recall a comic or embarrassing incident, begin chanting and swinging both hands side to side. Forced laughter, according to Dr. William Fry, who in 1964 was the first to suggest studying laughter, can morph into genuine laughter rather easily. Laughter therapy is being performed by participants as a group, starting out as fake laughter and proceeding until the laughter becomes natural.

There are laughter clubs that generally meet in the mornings, with group members maintaining eye contact with one another and playfulness until the forced laughter becomes truly spontaneous. Laughter is essentially necessary to our being and is responsible for mental and physical wellness.

"The four levels of comedy: Make your friends laugh. Make strangers laugh. Get paid for making strangers laugh. Make people talk like you, because it is so much fun!" - Jerry Seinfeld

Diane Daniels is a retired mental health professional. She is a volunteer working with the United Way of Citrus County and lives in the area. She can be reached at fjd267@bellsouth.net.

 
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