Laughter can be a lifesaver. Awkward moments are relieved by a good chuckle and memories are made because “the funniest thing happened.” There’s simply nothing better than a good laugh – the kind that makes your face hurt and your eyes tear up. It’s no surprise, then, to learn there’s truth in the adage that laughter is the best medicine.
Psychologist Gerald J. Ellison, Ph.D., of Tulsa’s Cancer Treatment Centers of America believes his patients bring several powerful resources with them to their treatment process, laughter being one of them.
“When we engage in laughter, especially the deeper belly laughter in response to something funny or we simply simulate the behavior of such laughter, we stimulate the immune system to produce cells that help keep the body healthy or help it heal,” says Ellison. “Such experiences create a state of eustress, which is a state that produces positive or healthy emotions.”
According to Ellison, research associates these emotions with a variety of health benefits including an increase in T-Cells that fight bacteria and an increase in the production of immunoglobulin “A”—an antibody that helps fight upper respiratory infections. Laughter also decreases stress hormones, which suppress immune functions.
“To say the least, there’s a lot of data that tell us several physiological and psychological factors are in play when we have those belly laughs that make laughter a ‘medicine’ that is free, enjoyable and effective,” says Ellison. “Laughter does not replace appropriate cutting-edge medical technologies, which we use, but it can be an important personal resource in a patient’s healing journey.”
To help patients along, CTCA offers them a weekly laughter class to not only boost their spirits but also to reduce anxiety, which wastes precious energy and suppresses the immune system.
“Remember, life sometimes throws us a lemon. Whether or not the sour taste of the lemon dominates will be determined by our perspective on the possibilities available to us,” says Ellison. “Laughter can be an important force in helping us cultivate an optimistic perspective and practices that foster health and healing, and will help turn that lemon into lemonade.”
Fake vs. Real
What may surprise you is that whether you’re genuinely laughing or just going through the motions, you still get the same health benefits.
“Our body doesn’t seem to know the difference between simulated laughter and stimulated laughter. We experience the benefits of laughter whether it is simulated or actually stimulated by something funny,” says Dr. Gerald Ellison of Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
“In fact, if you begin to simulate or go through the motions of laughter, including making the sounds and generating the movements, it is likely to result in actually causing yourself to begin genuinely laughing.”
Ellison suggests setting aside a “laughter room” or area in your home to help permanently establish laughter into your daily life. Also, consider reading and sharing funny stories and jokes or watching funny movies to help lighten the mood.
“We encourage patients and caregivers to actually decide on times they want to enjoy laughter and to engage in both simulated and stimulated laughter,” he says. “Getting the benefits of the behavior is the real focus.”