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When Nothing’s Funny, Even Simulated Laughter Can Be Good Medicine

by Jennifer Crystal

In 2016, I wrote a post called “Laughter Really Can Be the Best Medicine”. In it, I discussed the health benefits of laughter: it reduces stress and anxiety, decreases pain, strengthens resilience, boosts the immune system, and calms the autonomic nervous system. In short, laughter makes us feel good, and that’s not something Lyme warriors often experience.

Laughter is not easy to come by when you’re stuck in bed and feeling miserable about your situation. Tick-borne illness can cause anxiety and depression, especially when you’re frustrated and scared during what is often a long and disheartening search for a diagnosis, treatment, and support.

Still, humor can be found in even the most dire situations. In my previous post, I gave examples of friends and family members helping me see the lighter side of my convalescence. In a 2018 post titled  “Books and Resources That Have Helped Me On My Journey”, I mention those books and movies that helped me laugh during my darkest days.

But now I have even better news to share: You don’t have to find a humorous book, or joke, or TV show, or anecdote to make yourself laugh. New research shows that simulated laughter—laughter we create ourselves, without the trigger of something actually funny—has the same health benefits as laughter induced by a genuinely comic source.

Researchers at Georgia State University did a study in which older people participated in LaughActive, a strength, balance, and flexibility workout that incorporated playful simulated laughter. As an article on Georgia State University News Hub explains, “In simulated laughter exercises, participants initially choose to laugh and go through the motions of laughing.” The article noted that “Simulated laughter techniques are based on knowledge that the body cannot distinguish between genuine laughter that might result from humor and laughter that is self-initiated as bodily exercise.”

Indeed, participants noted great health benefits from the self-induced laughter (the full study was published in the journal The Gerontologist).[i] Huffington Post editors noticed similar benefits when they tried a Laughter Yoga course with Francine Shore, a certified laughter yoga teacher who runs The Laughter Yoga Salon in New York City. “The body doesn’t know the difference between simulated laughter and spontaneous laughter,” Shore told editor Sarah Bourassa. “The body is still going to respond and release the [feel good] endorphins and lower the stress hormones.” [ii]

Laughter can bring us out of our heads, which is an easy place to get stuck when you’re chronically ill. “Children laugh hundreds of times a day. And as adults, we laugh only 12 times a day,” said Shore. That’s because children live in their hearts and as adults we’re in our heads. We all need to give ourselves permission to laugh even in the face of adversity.”

Whether you’re wrestling with Lyme or with another illness, laughter has proven health benefits. An article on laughteryoga.org notes, “Laughter yoga is a powerful remedial tool that also helps to get in touch with reality and control emotions and feelings under adverse situations. Besides healing the mind and mitigating emotional pain, laughter alleviates physical pain and aids in a speedy recovery, making it the best medicine for complete wellness.”[iii]

Francine Shore incorporates laughter exercises with yoga breathing, a technique originally practiced by Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician from India. If you’re thinking, Im too sick to do yoga!, there is also laughter meditation, where participants lie on the floor and start fake laughing until collectively it turns into real laughter. One exercise is to chant “ho ho ha ha ha” intermittently for several seconds. You could try it from your bed. Invite some friends or family members to sit with you and pretend to laugh, or Face Time a fellow Lyme warrior and try the technique together. You’ll likely crack each other up eventually, which is precisely the point!

[i] https://news.gsu.edu/2016/09/15/laughter-based-exercise-program-health-benefits-georgia-state-researchers-find/

[ii] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/laughter-yoga-class-happier_n_56a8f81ee4b0f6b7d5447846

[iii] https://laughteryoga.org/laughter-yoga-helps-people-with-chronic-illnesses/


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Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.

Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. Her memoir about her medical journey is forthcoming. Contact her at [email protected].