There’s an old cliché: “Laughter is the best medicine.” Researchers studying neurological disorders are discovering that the cliché may not be far from the truth. Staying positive and fighting against depression and anxiety are central to any long-term fight against disease, and those who are able to cope with their disease are able to live productive, satisfying lives. Laughter has long been suspected to have neurological benefits, and various teams in different neurological fields have been putting the hypothesis to the test.
A study was recently concluded in Iran that examined the effects of laughter yoga therapy on patients with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological degenerative disease. The therapy targeted anxiety and sleep difficulties that many individuals begin to struggle with once their neurological illness progresses far enough. The results are thought to be comparable to what the same laughter yoga might produce in patients with multiple sclerosis.
Fighting chronic illness is just as much a matter of feeling better as it is actually getting better. Since there is currently no cure for MS, individuals who are diagnosed with MS must learn to effectively cope with the progressive illness. Many manage to overcome the symptoms of the disease and are able to find effective solutions, such as laughter therapy, which may be one of the best therapies available. There is a study currently underway which seeks to prove the neurological benefits of laughter yoga for MS patients.
Laughter Studies in Parkinson’s Patients
In late July, 24 patients living with Parkinson’s disease were admitted to Hazarate Raoul Allah Hospital in Tehran, Iran to undergo a study of the effects of laughter yoga on their anxiety and sleep quality. The patients were between 55 and 75 years of age, and all met the same criteria for entering the study. Once chosen, the participants were separated into a control group and an experimental group.
The patients participated in laughter yoga, a form of aerobic exercise that focuses on breathing and breaking through emotional barriers. Using a series of questionnaires and surveys designed to normalize test results, researchers were able to identify significant differences between the group that underwent laughter therapy and the control group. Laughter therapy was shown to reduce the average amount of stress experienced by patient groups throughout the day, and was shown to have a positive impact on patients’ quality of sleep.
The study concluded that laughter yoga exercise would be beneficial for patients as part of a treatment therapy program, alongside already existing therapies. The goal of the therapy in practice would be to reduce stress and anxiety, and to improve sleep quality in order to give patients the best attitude in coping with their disease. While the study was limited to patients with Parkinson’s disease, the results were extrapolated to any degenerative disease in which anxiety and sleeping troubles are a common symptom.
Laughter Yoga in Multiple Sclerosis Patients
Dr. Ted Brown, director of neurorehabilitation at the EvergreenHealth Multiple Sclerosis Center in Washington state, is leading a clinical trial studying the effects of laughter in patients with Multiple Sclerosis. He states that the goal of the study is to “prove that laughter therapy is effective, that the hypothesis that it is effective is true.” He also hopes that proven positive effects of his clinical studies will increase awareness of laughter therapy, encouraging more MS patients to add it to their regimen of therapies.
Laughter has been proven to improve mood and relieve pain. In addition to its benefits to the mind, laughter is an aerobic exercise, which builds core and facial muscles. For MS patients, who are often unable to walk or perform extended physical activities, laughter can be the best physical option available. Brown says: “there are not a lot of exercise options for them, but they can do this. They can laugh.”
Brown was exposed to laughter yoga at a conference, and felt that it would be beneficial to the approximately 900 MS patients that EvergreenHealth sees each year. He reached out to laughter yoga instructor Julie Plaut Warwick and began offering classes to his patients at the clinic. The sessions were so helpful to patients with MS that Brown was compelled to create the protocol for and develop the clinical study.
The study consists of eight weeks of sessions in which patients with multiple sclerosis work through a program that involves breathing, laughter, relaxation, and conversational exercises. The participants must attend the therapy in person, and there are ten participants in each session. If the study proves successful, Brown will pilot the program with other MS patients that EvergreenHealth sees on a regular basis.
The clinical trials are finishing up the last of three separate trial runs, and the first two have provided positive results. Brown reports that patients “feel less anxious,” and “less depressed,” following the therapy sessions. This is due in part to the laughter, but Brown also believes that the therapy sessions offer patients social opportunities that they otherwise might not receive. During the session, patients meet new people and get to know about them in a positive way, which helps them to feel less isolated and lonely in coping with the disease.
The Science Behind Laughter
Laughter therapy works by making deep shifts in thinking in patients who have fallen into believing that their situation is hopeless, and that it will only continue to deteriorate. Sebastien Gendry, head of faculty at Laughter Online University at the Laughter Wellness Institute, explains that laughter therapy is a shift in attitude “creating distance between what we think is painful and what actually is pain.”
On a purely physical level, Gendry explains that “laughter relieves tension,” and that it is a “simple and impactful way to improve immune function by increasing cardiovascular activity and improving lymphatic function with deep breathing and increased oxygen.” During laughter therapy, patients often talk about how depression limits their ability to function, and testify that the therapy enables them to do things simply by starting with the feeling that they can.
Studying laughter can be a challenge, as patients must be willing to open themselves up to strangers in that way. In this regard, therapy can be very challenging emotionally. When a person breathes deeply and tries to laugh, sometimes it can result in crying and a deep sense of vulnerability. Plaut Warwick, who has led laugher therapy sessions for people with MS since 2014, says that this is okay, and that the point is to get it all out.
Plaut Warwick has gathered personal testimonies as an informal way of determining whether or not the sessions are beneficial. She says that MS patients will share stories with her about being able to move better, or be more flexible, or have more energy. She attributes this to “oxygenating our body—creating endorphins, and reminding our body that it is still here and alive.”
The therapy sessions do not focus on goofiness or silliness, or even happiness. The primary aim of laughter therapy sessions is to change the way that individuals think about themselves in light of living with a neurological disorder. For this reason, the benefits of therapy and of laughter often fully express themselves outside of the classes. For those who struggle with anxiety and depression, perhaps laughter really is the best medicine.