Healing Through Humor: Laughter Therapy is an Effective Pain Reducer

Healing Through Humor: Laughter Therapy is an Effective Pain Reducer

Female Scientific Research Team With Clear Solution In LaboratorIf 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.


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?

Authored by: Darisse Smith

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Darisse Smith

I apologize to those suffering from AS-I certainly was not trying to take away from your suffering and I understand that just a little laughter therapy is going to treat your condition. I have intractable back pain and still have pain every single day. I hope that the greater issue that laughter and humor can be used to cope with the toil of chronic pain is the more powerful anecdote, rather than Norman Cousins’ supposed cure of AS. I would never dare to say that all you need is to laugh in order to cure a condition. In my experience, laughter and humor helped me cope through a lot of difficult times.

Michael Smith

As someone who has had Ankylosing Spondylitis for 30 years, I appreciate the concept of laughter as an aid to coping with chronic illness. I have, in fact, run a humorous website for people with AS for almost 20 years. (It’s called Spondyville.) Here’s the problem I have with your article and all articles of this type that keep going back to Norman Cousin’s book to validate their theories about laughter and illness; First off, Norman Cousins did NOT have AS. Anyone familiar with Ankylosing Spondylitis will recognize that his descriptions of the disease are not typical of the disease. All the Rheumatologists I have asked about this, just shake their heads and say he didn’t have AS. He may have had Reactive Arthritis or some other chronic inflammatory disease, but he didn’t have AS. Did he think he had AS? Maybe. He also did not cure himself of the disease by watching comedy movies and taking mega-doses of Vitamin C. Humor is a coping mechanism, it is not a cure for active auto-inflammatory diseases. Cousins was shameless in perpetuating this claim. An inflammatory disease can go into remission and then flare up again. When it goes into remission, you are not cured, the disease is just in a cycle or ebbing and flowing. Ankylosing Spondylitis is a serious, chronic inflammatory disease. It strikes young men and women usually between the ages of 17 and 35, and can be debilitating, often fusing the neck and spine and other joints. It can also affect the eyes, the heart and the lungs. According to the CDC there are 2.7 million Americans with some form of Spondyloarthritis. It does them a great dis-service to continue to push the myth that their disease can be so easily cured. If you check out the websites devoted to perserving the memory of Norman Cousins, they have stepped back from saying he had AS; they now say he had some vague inflammatory disease. But for some reason, this notion that he cured himself of AS will not die, it is mentioned whenever someone wants to write an article about the therapeutic effects of humor, and frankly, to those of us with severe forms of AS, it’s maddening. Laughter DOES have healing properties, and it is good for the soul. No argument there. Humor can heal many moods. It can alter your mindset. It can change your outlook. But for crying out loud, it can’t stop bones from fusing. A happy mindset may help you deal with the changes a chronic disease may bring, but that is a far cry from being healed. If misinforming the general public about the nature of AS wasn’t bad enough, think of all the false hope and later, the despair, that has been created in people with AS over the years, who, like me, try Cousins approach, only to have their AS keep progressing. Please stop using this discredited piece of fiction as a reference source for future articles. The story of… Read more »

Anna West

The Cousins information has been disproved many years ago, please don’t keep reprinting this falsehood. He did not have AS, his type of arthritis only lasts 3-4 months and then goes away, no matter the treatment. It is so harmful to print this as if we don’t try to fix our pain.