If you are a pain sufferer like me, having a good laugh isn’t always easy. But it sure can make you feel better.
Recently, I gave a presentation about Laughter Therapy for the North Carolina Therapeutic Recreation Association. In preparing for the presentation, I had to think a lot about how I have survived the daily toil of chronic pain. I have had some form of pain in my back and left leg since February 2005. Experiencing pain for a long time is just a small part of the battle, though it is enough to drive a person to sadness, insanity and mild violence. For me (and probably for many of you), the greatest source of bitterness is that with the proper medical treatment at the time of injury I could be pain free. Instead, doctors dismissed my complaints and then grossly mistreated my injury. If they had just taken me seriously from the beginning and listened, I would most likely have had months of discomfort instead of years.
I figured something out recently—holding onto to that bitterness was actually hurting me–bringing me down mentally and providing excuses for me to remain severely unhappy. So I decided to remember what I already knew—it’s good to laugh.
In 2011, I was chosen to take part in a program and documentary film called, “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor.” 5 disabled combat veterans were chosen to learn how to write and perform stand up comedy with the help of “A” list celebrities Bob Saget, Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis and BJ Novak. We were also paired up with other comedy mentors who worked very closely with us to develop a 5 minute stand up set. My mentor was Bernadette Luckette, a comic with 10 years experience performing stand up and success as a writer on “The Tracy Morgan Show,” “Livin’ Single,” and “Girlfriends,” among others. She taught me exactly how powerful laughter can be. She encouraged me to write jokes about the parts of my recovery that really ticked me off, especially the gross negligence of my doctors. It was during “Comedy Warriors” that I realized how I have used my sense of humor throughout my time as a pain patient to survive. I binge-watched sitcoms during my lowest times. I cracked jokes at the Pain Management Doctor even though I was inwardly miserable.
LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE
In doing research for this presentation I discovered the physiological and psychological reasons that laughter really is the best medicine. In 1964, world-renowned journalist and peace advocate Norman Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative and debilitating disease of the spine. Doctors told him that he would die very soon from the disease and offered little hope for regaining any ability to move freely. Fortunately, Cousins did not accept this grim diagnosis. He checked himself into a hotel and rented hours worth of comedic movies including the “Marx Brothers” and episodes of “Candid Camera.” Cousins discovered that an extended period of rigorous belly laughter relaxed him enough that he could sleep, allowing his body to heal.
Eventually, Cousins recovered from his illness and lived another 26 years. More important than that, he also became the modern champion of a field called gelotology: the science and study of the physiological and psychological effects of laughter. Did you know that smiling for 20 seconds cools the blood to your brain, creating positive emotions? In the opposing corner, frowning for 20 seconds warms the blood to your brain, creating negative emotions. Laughter has been proven to relax muscles, produce endorphins, boost immunity, lower stress hormones, prevent heart disease and even decrease pain.
I acknowledge that laughter is not the miracle panacea we all wish for but it is a normal human experience that we can use to our distinct advantage. Try a laughter yoga class (which is the subject for a whole another column!). Rent movies and shows that make you laugh. Force a smile for 20 seconds when you are feeling sad, frustrated or angry.
Add laughter to your kit box of tactics in reducing pain, boosting your mental outlook and staying healthy.
Let the healing begin!
Editor’s Note—Darisse Smith is a US Army veteran and a chronic pain sufferer who occasionally writes for the National Pain Report. Laughter works for her. What works for you?