Therese J. Borchard is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes. Find out why she believes laughter is the best medicine.
Of all my tools to combat depression and negativity, humour is by far the most fun. And just like mastering the craft of writing, I’m finding that the longer I practise laughing at life – and especially its frustrations – the better I become at it, and the more situations and conversations and complications I can place into that category named “silly.”
Here are just a few ways our bodies, minds, and spirits begin to mend with a dose of humour.
1. Humour combats fear
I know this first hand, having sat in a community room of a psych ward watching a video of a comedian poke fun at depression. Like everyone else occupying a chair in that room, I was scared to death… of many things. Scared that I would never smile again. Or love again. Or even WANT to love again. I was fearful of life, and everything it involved.
That panic didn’t instantly transform into a hearty chuckle once the psych nurse popped in the funny video. But the climate of the room was noticeably different. Patients began to open up more, to share some of the details they had left out in the prior group therapy session.
Humour disengages fear because it changes your perspective: of the past and of the present. The traumatic childhood episode loses its tight grip on your heart if you can place it into the “ridiculous” category of other stories from the past. With a playful perspective, you can remove yourself from the marital problem that has you debilitated with anxiety. Laughter forces some much-needed distance between a situation and our reaction. We all would do well to follow the advice of Leo Buscaglia: “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. And swing!”
2. Humour comforts
Charlie Chaplin once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.” I suppose that’s why some of the funniest people out there—Stephen Colbert, Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Art Buchwald – have journeyed through periods of torment.
There is an unspoken message hidden within a chuckle that says “I promise, you’ll get through this.” Just like the comforting hug of your mom when you were three. In fact, New York City’s Big Apple Circus has used humour to console sick children since 1986, when they started sending teams of clowns into hospital rooms with “rubber chicken soup” and other fun surprises. “It’s for the children, yes,” explains Jane Englebardt, deputy director of the circus, in an “American Fitness” article. “But it’s also for the parents who, when they hear their children laugh for the first time in days or weeks, know everything’s going to be okay.”
3. Humour relaxes
Like any exercise, laughing relaxes you, and works against chronic stress that most people wear on the shoulder. Mehmet C. Oz, M.D., a heart surgeon at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Centre in New York City, explains why this is so in a 2005 Reader’s Digest article:
When you push any engine, including your body, to its maximum, every once in a while it slips a gear. The ways the body manifests that are: irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure, and increased sensitivity to pain. When people use humour, the autonomic nervous system just tones down a bit to take it off high gear, and that allows the heart to relax.
4. Humour boosts the immune system
Whenever I prick myself accidentally, I tell a joke, and my finger doesn’t bleed. Well, not exactly. But if you are laid up in bed with a terrible strain of the flu that your four-year-old brought home from her play date yesterday, try to find an itsy-bitsy thread of humour in your situation, and you’ll be back to work in no time. Or, better yet, dwell in the misery and stay away from the cubicle longer.
In 2006 researchers led by Lee Berk and Stanley A. Tan at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California, found that two hormones – beta-endorphins (which alleviate depression) and human growth hormone (HGH, which helps with immunity) increased by 27 and 87 percent respectively when volunteers anticipated watching a humorous video. Simply anticipating laughter boosted health-protecting hormones and chemicals.
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