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.

Taking a Break from Caring

“People tell you to keep your ‘courage’ up. But the time for courage is when she was sick, when I took care of her and saw her suffering, her sadness, and when I had to conceal my tears. Constantly one had to make a decision, put on a mask and that was courage.” -Roland Barthes 

It can be overwhelming and even a little scary to leave your loved ones in the hands of complete strangers. Even leaving a person with PSP (or any debilitating illness), in the hands of family or loved ones who do not provide daily care can be somewhat nerve-wracking. But, without breaks caregivers are at risk for burnout, increased stress, and fatigue.  In fact, when caregivers were studied it was  determined that they experience a 23% higher level of stress hormones than non caregivers.

Negative Impact of Stress on the Caregiver

Stress negatively impacts our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For example, WebMD notes that increased stress is linked to higher incidents of alcohol use and abuse, sleep disturbances, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Even though we can feel guilty leaving our loved one in someone else’s care, it is critical to take breaks when we are able to.  Without these breaks not only are we at risk for the above-mentioned health impacts but also, caregiver burnout can lead to increased impatience with our loved one.

Taking a Break from Caregiving

Respite care is an invaluable resource which caregivers can utilize for a break. While some people find that twenty-four hour or week-long respite care in a facility is the best choice for a loved one- even finding one afternoon a week can be enough to reduce some of the fatigue and stress associated with being a caregiver. There are several options for respite care. First, family and friends are often willing to provide a few hours of care. Second, Medicaid, Medicare, and other insurances will usually cover a few hours of in-home care time.  The ARCH National Respite Network offers a comprehensive list of resources for finding for, paying for, and utilizing respite.

Walking Away

Once an alternative care provider is in place, the challenge becomes walking away. When you are the primary or even secondary caregiver, it can be very challenging to let go and give yourself the time away. I still remember the feelings of powerlessness I felt whenever I had to arrange for someone else to provide care for Mom. I constantly wondered how it was going?  Was Mom happy? Was she getting her needs met? After Mom asked for and went to the nursing home, my sister and I called the facility way more often than we needed to.

The first morning Mom was in the nursing home I had extreme difficulty letting go, I didn’t know if they were helping her in the way she preferred, I was anxious about her inability to communicate her preferences, I was scared that the staff wouldn’t be patient or nice to her. Eventually, I made a binder of Mom’s preferences and needs that she can use to communicate with people on the days where she is not able to clearly talk. The binder combined with other assisted communication devices and the fact that they now know her has helped me to let go. When Mom was home, talking with and explaining her care to new caregivers allowed me to feel more confident in their ability to assist her.

Resource

One of the things that helped me to let go and take breaks was the knowledge that the person taking care of mom knew her routines and preferences. During the years of in-home care, my Dad would leave notes for the aides, and we would call at times. I talked about creating a worksheet and document about Mom’s needs, but, time was never on my side. The following is a worksheet that I wish I had developed for us to use when we left Mom in someone’s care: Caregiving Break- Worksheet  (PDF Printable Version). 

Caregiving Break- Worksheet