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Humor Heals: The Benefits of Laughter for People with Chronic Conditions and Their Caregivers

February 19, 2014

While caring for a loved one with a chronic health condition is a serious endeavor, remembering to laugh and interject humor into your daily lives benefits both the patient and caregiver.

If you were to sit down and write a list of some of the least funny things a person could talk about, just receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer would likely be at the top of the list. Yet the comedian Tig Nataro, who had just received her diagnosis of breast cancer, turned her diagnosis in to a Grammy nominated comedy routine, which other comedians called an act of comic mastery. Fortunately, Ms. Nataro’s cancer is in remission and she is doing well. Given the findings of recently published research about the benefits of humor and laughter for both individuals with chronic illnesses and their caregivers, one has to wonder if part of the comedian’s healing stemmed from her positive outlook.

Laughter: Nature’s Pain Reliever

When people laugh, their muscles relax, as their tension seems to melt away. Part of the reason is that we you laugh, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, which are natural substances that mimic the effects of powerful painkillers like morphine and codeine, without the danger of addiction. Similar to opioid medications, endorphins alter your perception of pain. Additionally, they also elicit a sense of wellbeing. For example, people who run on a regular basis often refer to a “runner’s high” when they talk about reaching a point when they no longer are aware of the pain in their muscles and a rush of euphoria they experience when they run.

Other effect of laughter on your physiology is that a good giggle reduces the amount of cortisol, which is hormone released by the body when it is under stress. When cortisol floods your system, it raises the amount of glucose in your body, which can be dangerous for people who are trying to manage diabetes. Another problems associated with an overabundance of cortisol is the increase in sensitivity to pain and the exacerbation of inflammation, which is especially problematic for people with chronic diseases, such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, inflammation is also associated with heart disease and even obesity.

A Laugh a Day Keeps the Doctor Away   

You might be surprised to learn that a good laugh has the potential to help you avoid colds and infections. When you laugh, your immune system releases T-cells, which protect your body against bacteria, viruses, and other disease causing invaders. Additionally, laughter leads to the release of immunoglobulin A by your salivary glands, which is another immune system compound that helps protect you against disease.

A Funny Joke is Good for the Heart and Brain

When you laugh at a joke, your blood pressure decreases, which makes it easier for blood to flow through your system without as much stress on your blood vessels. This mechanism is another way in which humor and laughter helps prevent against heart disease and stroke. As the blood moves more freely through your body, more oxygen reaches all areas of your body, which helps increase your energy level. In addition, with the extra oxygen flowing to your brain cells, you are more alert and sharp than you are normally. This not only helps people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, but a Canadian study also found that humor helps prevent caregiver burnout among children caring for parents with degenerative brain diseases.

The Benefits of Humor for Emotional Well-Being  

If you read the autobiographies of successful comedians, like Carol Burnett, Stephen Colbert, and Chevy Chase, many used humor to overcome adversity in their lives. The ability to use laughter and humor, even when you are faced with difficult circumstances, promotes a positive outlook on life. This sense of optimism reduces your stress level, which in turn reduces the risk of developing depression and anxiety. Additionally, the positive energy fosters resiliency, which allows both you and your loved one to rebound from trying situations.

Another way that humor enhances the psychological well-being of a person who is chronically ill is that it normalizes their experience, especially if a person who is coping with the same illness or condition makes the joke. Often when people live with long-term medical issues, they tend to feel isolated as it seems like they are the only ones who have to deal with the illness. When someone makes a joke about his or her daily challenges, it not only elicits the healing power of laughter, but the humor also builds bridges for people who have similar conditions. In fact, a study conducted in Norway of 53,000 senior citizens found that those who were able to find humor in their day-to-day lives had a mortality rate 20 percent lower than people who did not enjoy a good laugh. An Australian research report indicated that people diagnosed with dementia living in nursing homes were 20 percent less agitated and aggressive than those who were not exposed to the funny entertainment. Amazingly, this result is the same as what you would expect if the person was taking antipsychotic medications.

Finding Helpful Humor

One of the challenges of using humor as a caregiver is that people have different ideas about what is funny and there are generational differences in what individuals consider humorous. Whether you are caring for your parents or are looking for a personal care assistant, it is important to use humor in a respectful manner so the both your loved one enjoys a good laugh, along with the different health benefits. One suggestion is to look at videos of the comedians that were popular during the elderly person’s youth.

Some resources for funny jokes and one-liners include the following:

When you hire a PCA from a Minnesota home health agency, you can rest assured that they will use humor in a helpful way.

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