Laughing can ease your pain
BY DR. PATRICK NEUSTATTER
Among the alternatives to conventional medicine, the Bible tells us we should include laughter—or at least “a merry heart.”
Hearty laughter is a good workout. It oxygenates your blood, stimulates your whole cardiovascular system and does good things to your blood vessels. And it’s good for your metabolism in general. It lowers your blood sugar and encourages healthier distribution of fat—not on your abdomen, but where you want it—on your “sit-upon.”
One minute of laughter is the equivalent of 10 minutes on the rowing machine, says Dr. William Fry, leading researcher into the psychology of laughter at Stanford University.
Another benefit: Laughter and a sense of humor act as an antidote to the corrosive effects of stress, depression and anxiety. Studies show people with an upbeat personality are less likely to get heart disease.
Many hormones are released in the whole “mind–body calisthenics” business of laughing. Most significant are endorphins, the natural opiate-like substances your body produces in various situations, including exercise. Endorphins make people feel good.
Endorphins also help people with pain. Many experiments have shown people need less pain medicine, or tolerate some painful stimulus for longer, if they are shown funny videos.
Norman Cousins, that guru of the power of positive thinking and attitude, and author of “Anatomy of an Illness,” claims he could obtain two hours of sleep free from the pain of his arthritis by watching funny videos like “Candid Camera.”
In his book “Laughter,” researcher Robert Provine talks about how people who crack jokes and laugh do much better with what he calls “society’s most notorious purveyors of anxiety and pain”—not the IRS, but dentists.
Laughter is also noted to boost people’s immunity—specifically, it increases the production of certain types of defensive white blood cells and activates “killer cells” that help defend against cancers.
Approximately 20 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s treatment centers in the U.S. offer laughter or humor therapy.
THE DARK SIDE AND LAUGH TRACKS
Laughter can have it’s dark or spooky aspect—think of the villain in some horror movie laughing maniacally over the plight of his victim.
Humor can also be used as a defense against pain and suffering. I once wrote about ICU nurses using humor as a defense against the anguish of dealing with death and suffering 24/7.
Unfortunately, that experience also taught me that not everyone interprets efforts to be humorous in the same way; some people were angry at me for writing about the humor we sometimes use to cope at the hospital.
From a spiritual perspective, theologian Karl Barth claims laughter is “the closest thing to the grace of God.”
Another feature of laughter is that it is very contagious. Any TV producer knows this and so uses “laugh tracks” for comedy shows.
In Mumbai, India, a doctor has developed “laughing yoga,” where people gather in a public park in the early morning and—at first at least—feign laughter, until everyone is laughing for real. (There’s a great video on YouTube of John Cleese joining in.)
My experience has been that upbeat patients seem to be less sick. And my personal experience is that when I’m feeling lighthearted, I seem to be able to shake off—or maybe ignore—minor ailments. It seems that laughter does “doeth good like a medicine.
A few studies do not corroborate the health benefits of laughing, humor or “a merry heart,” but I am thoroughly convinced. And that’s no joke.
Dr. Patrick Neustatter, a longtime family practitioner, is the medical director of the Lloyd F. Moss Free Clinic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org