The Healing Power of Laughter

“Always laugh when you can, it is cheap medicine” -Lord Byron

I woke up tired again today. For me, waking up tired is one of the hardest feelings in the world. When this is combined with steroids, stress, and an inability to meet my responsibilities the days feel incredibly long. Yesterday, I yelled at my partner for cutting potatoes for French Fries into rectangles as opposed to using the cheese grater to make round potato chip like French Fries. Of course, this yelling resulted in my second crying meltdown of the day.

They say that people with Crohn’s ought to avoid stress. But, when the Crohn’s is resulting in decreased economic earning power, the difficulties of meeting basic life functions i.e. being awake long enough to do things like dishes, laundry, and showering, and there is the added guilt of not being physically able to spend time with a dying parent the emotional devastation gets to be a bit much. When daily pain is thrown in, and our diets become so restricted that even a simple meal becomes a challenge of extraordinary proportions it can be incredibly hard to focus on the big picture, hold onto to hope, or hell even smile at the insane. But, laughter truly is the best medicine and in these moments finding something to laugh at can make all of the difference.

Yesterday, my thing to laugh at was the need to be institutionalized. I felt as if my grip on reality was slipping, my emotions were a yo-yo of anger, frustration, grief, and fear which led to more than one moment of me crying while my partner kept telling me it was going to be okay, and while I knew that it was going to be okay in the moment I did not feel like it was going to be okay.

In response to a desperate plea for help my sister unknowingly made me laugh so hard I cried. After texting her that I was losing my grip on reality and that I felt as if I needed to be admitted to a psychiatric facility she replied with “well start with finding out if you can wean a little? And then get a referral to an institution.” For some reason, I just started laughing- perhaps there was nothing else I could do? But, in laughing, I finally had a little bit of relief from the emotional agony I had been walking through.

The Power of Laughter

Laughter has a myriad of benefits. Among these benefits are: stress reduction, immune system boosts, decreased physical pain, and improved mood.

Stress Reduction

High levels of stress are linked to decreased health. When we experience stress our hearts race, our breathing becomes faster, and our muscles prepare for action. During the time of stress, our adrenal glands release both adrenaline and cortisol which have negative impacts on our health. In fact, high stress has been linked to cardiovascular problems, headaches, stroke, body aches, and harmful behavior such as overeating and alcohol and drug abuse. But, when we laugh our bodies have increased oxygenation and our brain releases endorphins and neurotransmitters. The increased oxygenation can decrease the risks of cardiovascular problems as well as reducing the other negative impacts of stress on the body. Laughter also decreases the presence of stress hormones which lower immune response and lead to harmful behaviors.

Immune System Boost and Pain Relief

Endorphins are the bodies plain relievers. Like opiates, Endorphins attach to our brain receptors which can reduce pain as well as improve our overall mood. Not only does laughter result in decreased physical pain, but it also has been linked to immune systems boosts. Stress results in a chemical reaction in the body which lowers our immune response. In contrast, laughter releases neuropeptides which can fight stress and illness. Laughter also increases the efficiency of T-cells which gives a person an additional immune boost. Finally, the decrease of stress hormones that comes with laughter has its own immune-boosting effect.

Mood Enhancement

With the increase in endorphins that it provides laughing has a natural mood-boosting effect. We also can’t be angry or anxious when we are laughing. The Mayo Clinic says that laughter can also lessen depression and anxiety which will lead to us feeling happier. Laughter also helps us to shift our thinking from negative to positive. Through laughter, we can gain perspective on the situations and gain psychological distance from the depression, anger, or anxiety. With this psychological distance comes balance and a better ability to think positively about the situation at hand.

Health Benefits of Laughter by Jenny

How to Find Humor

For those of us living in hopeless or defeating circumstances, it can be challenging to find something to laugh at. Finding ways to find humor in the absurd can help to increase the presence of laughter in our lives. But, even if we are not in a place where we can laugh at the situation, we can find others ways to obtain the health benefits of laughter

  1.  Watch a comedy special or a funny movie. Netflix and Hulu both offer a range of options for comedy. If I don’t have time for an entire comedy special or movie, youtube has countless funny videos that can make me laugh in under five minutes. Start with a search for your favorite comedian, or terms such as “funny.”
  2. Spend time with funny people. My brother is one of those people who have zero ability to self-filter which leads to him saying the things everyone is thinking, but no one says. As such, whenever I spend time with him, I find myself laughing more than not. When I need a mood boost, Luke is always someone I can count on.
  3.  Fake it! Some Yoga gurus have already caught onto the healing power of laughter and in some practices fake laughter and breath work go hand in hand. Even though we might feel a bit ridiculous faking our laughter, eventually the mood boost of faking it and the absurdity of it will lead to real laughter.

Burnt Spaghetti Sauce

“Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey. To eat such a meal is to remember that, though the world is full of knives and storms, the body is built for kindness” -Eli Brown

There is nothing better than homemade spaghetti sauce with bread and butter. Luckily for me, one of my mom’s legacies is the making of spaghetti sauce. Kate, Emily, and I all view the process as both cathartic and also one of the connections we carry of our Mom. Shortly after Mom’s diagnosis, looking for comfort through familiar and loving food, Kate and I decided to meet at Mom’s and with her guidance make her sauce her way. As fairly budget-conscious people we decided that the best course of action was to make A LOT of sauce, divide it into thirds, then Kate, Mom, and Dad, and I would all have Spaghetti Sauce for the freezer.

Several pounds of hamburger and an ungodly amount of tomato products later the sauce filled an entire stock pot. By the time I got to Mom’s, Kate had begun the process and together we added spices, more tomato product, a little sugar. But, given that this was a significant amount of sauce it was decided (I am not naming names here, but this post’s author did not make this decision) to up the heat some as a mean to speed the process. Not even fifteen minutes later the smell hit us, the sauce was burning. For any person reading this who has ever made spaghetti sauce, you like us know that once you burn the bottom, the entire batch takes on a unique and decidedly burnt sauce taste. But, (again) being the fairly cheap people we are we added more spices, stirred more vigorously, divided and froze the sauce.

The entire winter, Kate, Dad and Mom, and I ate burnt spaghetti sauce. Text exchanges in those months took on a fun theme- “I just had some sauce, if you reheat it with more spices and a little sugar you can barely taste that it’s burnt” and “the sauce isn’t so bad, I made a lasagna and could barely tell.”

Lessons from Sauceageddon 2015

1. Food will in Fact Help

Food and grief are complicated. Some people who are grieving find that food is just not appealing to them while others find themselves managing complicated food cravings. But, food can also promote healing. The article, “Can Food Help Us Cope With Grief?” points out that for many food is tied to feeling of love and comfort. These feelings of love return when we try to perfect or recreate a family recipe. As the article says, “After the death of someone close food can seem unimportant. Grieving can make us lose our appetite and the motivation to cook, but food can also play an important healing role in remembering those who have gone.” For Kate and I, making Mom’s spaghetti sauce with her before she dies helped us in our anticipatory grief. Through cooking and remembering the times we had mom’s spaghetti sauce, we became more connected to mom and each other.

2. It is All About Perspective

We didn’t have to keep the sauce, and we certainly did not have to eat it all winter. But, instead of focusing on the burnt part of the sauce we focused on how to improve it, enjoy it, and use it. Life is going to hand us all more than burnt spaghetti sauce, and we will all have to decide if we are going to eat it or just give up and throw it away. It is not the event that truly matters. Instead, it is how you think about and cope with the event. Today, two years later Kate and I sometimes joke about getting together to “burn some spaghetti sauce.” For us, this has become a code for “hey life is pretty rough right now, let’s do something fun and not focused on caregiving, paperwork, and stress.”

3. Sometimes All you Can do is Laugh

Burning that spaghetti sauce gave Kate and me a chance to either focus on negative feelings such as anger that we burnt the sauce, or sadness that we would not have the same delicious taste we usually did when mom made it, or to laugh at our mistake and take meaning from it. Kate and I chose to laugh. I remember the day of the burnt spaghetti sauce fondly. Not because we made burnt spaghetti sauce, rather, I laughed so hard I cried, Mom laughed at both Kate and me, and we had a genuinely good day. In our lives there will be many moments where we can either laugh or cry, for me, laughing will always be the preferable solution.

How do you handle life’s burnt spaghetti sauces? I would love to hear from you in the comments.