“Your body cannot heal without play. Your mind cannot heal without laughter. Your soul cannot heal without joy.” – Catherine Rippenger Fenwick
Sure, it’s fun to have a good laugh, but did you know it can improve your health? I’m not joking! Laughter can “strengthen the immune system, improve mood, reduce pain, and protect from the damaging effects of stress.” As children, we used to laugh on average over 200 times daily, but as we age into adulthood, life tends to be more serious and laughter more infrequent. To counteract this barrier, it is important to intentionally seek out more opportunities for humor and laughter in everyday life, and that includes in the therapy setting. Mental health professionals can safely incorporate tools such as psychodrama and other experiential exercises in session that extract humor to address the mental, physical and emotional needs of clients.
The Science Behind Laughter & Humor
When a person is depressed, neurotransmitters in the brain [dopamine and serotonin] are reduced and the ‘mood control circuit of the brain’ is impaired. Laughter can repair malfunction by fluctuating dopamine and serotonin activity. Laughter can also alleviate the effects of stress by decreasing stress-making hormones and serum levels of cortisol and epinephrine found in the blood steam. Humor and laughter can shift perspective and change the way the mind views or experiences an event. Looking at a problem from a different perspective can create psychological distance. help diffuse conflict, feelings of being overwhelmed and even increase objectivity and insight.
Laughter & Humor in the Therapeutic Environment
Laughter Yoga was created by Indian physician Dr. Madan Kataria in collaboration with his wife Madhuri, a yoga teacher in 1995. Its principle follows a “body-mind approach” to laughter by inviting participants to “laugh for no reason”, which sometimes entails faking a laugh until it becomes real. This is possible since the body can functionally laugh regardless of what the mind has to say. A few studies have examined the effects of laughter yoga applied in the workplace and nursing home facilities, and the results show that engaging in exercises that simulate laughter can “increase self-efficacy in employees and reduce depression in the elderly.”
Click this link to hear more from Dr. Kataria and join in on some laughing exercises! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hf2umYCKr8
Improvisation, or improv, has more recently been applied to group therapy for the treatment of psychological issues and provide opportunities for personal growth and exploration. The benefits of practicing aspects of improv comedy in group therapy include, “active listening,” “risk-taking,” and “group-mind” (Steitzer, 2011). Comedic improv therapy (CIT) a group therapy model inspired by the practice of improv comedy, provides the therapeutic elements of “group cohesiveness, play, exposure, and humor.” Operating in collaboration with The Second City Training Center in Chicago, Mark Pfeffer and Becca Barish have facilitated a program known as Improv for Anxiety for the treatment of social anxiety disorder in adults and adolescents. Improv for Anxiety involves participants meeting twice a week for a period of 8 weeks. Each weekly session provides an opportunity for participants to engage in a traditional improv comedy class led by skilled improvisers at The Second City Training Center and mental health professionals experienced in group facilitation that utilize the proposed CIT model, in combination with other empirically-based models of therapy. They also provide psycho-education about unhelpful thinking styles and discuss methods of restricting negative cognitions. The response from the program’s participants has been positive, and is currently being empirically evaluated by the University of Chicago using the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale.
Phillips Sheesley, A., Pfeffer, M., & Barish, B. (2016). Comedic Improv Therapy for the Treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 11(2), 157-169.
Panksepp, J. (2000). The riddle of laughter: Neural and psychoevolutionary underpinnings of joy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(6), 183-186.
Steitzer, C. (2011). The brilliant genius: Using improv comedy in social work groups. Social Work with Groups, 34(3-4), 270282.
Yim, J. (2016). Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review. The Tohoku journal of experimental medicine, 239(3), 243-249.