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Therapies

humor therapy

What Is It?
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect
Health Benefits
How To Choose a Practitioner
Cautions


What Is It?

Humor therapy is a catchall term for the various ways in which health-care organizations are currently using the art of laughter to treat disease. Today hospitals and ambulatory clinics not only embrace guffawing doctors, but other methods of humor therapy as well, from in-hospital clowns to more formal humor programs. But laughter as "the best medicine" is hardly a new idea. One of the earliest mentions of the health benefits of humor is in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. And as Voltaire noted in the 18th century, "The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease." It was not until the 1930s, however, that scientists first began to study the physiological and psychological effects of humor on the body.

But it was Norman Cousins who truly brought the healing power of humor into public awareness. While the editor of Saturday Review magazine in 1964, Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling, extremely painful form of arthritis. Although his doctors offered little hope of a full recovery, Cousins decided to take matters into his own hands. Having read Hans Selye's 1956 book, The Stress of Life, which deals with the power of negative emotions to induce illness, Cousins decided to investigate whether positive emotions such as humor could do the opposite--and help him heal.

He deliberately set about looking for laughter at every opportunity. One of his primary observations was that watching funny movies for 30 minutes in his hospital room would allow him two hours of restful, pain-free sleep. He did this every day as often as possible, and took detailed notes on the process. Fully recovered within six months of starting his self-imposed treatment, Cousins later detailed his experiences in his 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness. His insights were echoed around the same time by the antics--and research--of maverick West Virginia pediatrician Hunter "Patch" Adams, who took bedside humor to therapeutic extremes by wearing a clown costume (red rubber nose and all), while making his hospital rounds. According to Adams, who was the subject of a 1999 movie and who continues to promote the healing power of humor, "Joy is more important than any other drug."

Not surprisingly many doctors and nurses around the world are now taking up Patch Adams' clown act, and many hospitals have created a variety opportunities for trained and volunteer humorists to work with patients (see "How to Find a Practitioner," below).

How Does It Work?

Since Cousins and Adams broke the modern ground in this area, many researchers continue to investigate the effects of laughter on the body. A number of studies have found that laughter triggers the release of natural painkillers called endorphins. These chemicals not only help to block pain but produce a general sense of well-being. Recently, researchers in Israel reported that participants in a study who watched a funny movie were able to withstand pain (dipping arms in ice-cold water) far longer than those who watched a boring documentary or a decidedly upsetting film.

Several researchers at Loma Linda University in California have been examining the beneficial effects of laughter on the immune system for some time. One of their projects, published in 1988, actually detected a significant drop in levels of the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenalin, after participants watched a funny 60-minute video. Reducing stress hormone levels is valuable because the hormones can so easily corrupt the immune system and weaken its ability to fight disease.

But laughter can do much more than just prevent harm to the immune system, researchers are finding. It can actually enhance it. Laughter accomplishes this by raising levels of infection fighting T-cells, disease-fighting proteins called gamma-interferon, and B-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies. Finally, because laughter increases breathing, oxygen use, and heart rate, it can stimulate the circulatory system, bringing healthful lymphatic fluids to diseased areas and (temporarily) lowering blood pressure.

What You Can Expect

While every hospital situation is different, in those institutions that have established humor therapy programs, you may find "Comedy Carts" (featuring props that poke fun at standard medical devices) or "Caring Clowns" who are professionally trained to work with patients of all ages. For a hospitalized child, a session of humor therapy might begin with an enormous clown shoe appearing around the door of the hospital room. Or a doctor may suddenly blow bubbles out of his stethoscope. For adult patients, humor therapy might be as simple as a nurse or friendly attendant sharing a wry look or an admiring aside about your "lovely designer (hospital) gown." Some hospitals have even created special rooms where humorous materials such as movies, audio and videotapes, books, games, and puzzles are continually available to help make people laugh!

Health Benefits

There are numerous health benefits attributed to laughter, all requiring further study. One big area under investigation is pain management. As with Norman Cousins, the endorphins released as a result of laughter may help in reducing the intensity of pain in those suffering from spondylitis, arthritis, or muscular spasms. Migraine and tension headaches may also benefit. Laughter may also help with postsurgical pain. In a study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing, patients were told one-liners after surgery and before pain medication was administered. Those exposed to humor perceived less pain when compared to patients who didn't get a dose of humor as part of their therapy.

For the bed-bound, the rapid muscular contractions and deep, diaphragmatic breathing associated with hearty laughter can provide a valuable cardiovascular workout. (It has been suggested that one minute of laughter is equal to 10 minutes on a rowing machine.) And because frequent belly laughter empties the lungs of air, it may be especially beneficial for patients who are suffering from emphysema and other respiratory ailments.

Laughter's immune-boosting effects are also being studied as a potential boon for everything from beating colds to combatting AIDs.

How To Choose a Practitioner

To date, there is no formal certification or degree in humor therapy, and there are no licensure or regulatory requirements. Different hospitals and health-care settings might employ a variety of people who use therapeutic humor to help patients cope. Although many are health-care professionals, increasing numbers of people from pastoral care, social work, and the education and business fields, have received training from a variety of sources.

To find out more about humor therapy, you can contact one of the growing number of organizations that promote it. One is Patch Adams's Gesundheit! Institute in Washington, D.C., created in 1971 to further the cause of humor in healing worldwide. Two other organizations, the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor in Phoenix, AZ, and the American Association for Therapeutic Humor in St. Louis, MO, offer conferences and seminars to provide training in "caring comedy."

Cautions

 Healing humor is never derisive, aggressive, or demeaning. If someone attempts to "perk you up" with sarcasm or an offensive joke, let them know very clearly that the approach isn't working.



Date Published: 04/19/2005
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