Speaking daily to people suffering CRPS and other forms of chronic pain, what constantly amazes me is their continued capacity for humour, dark or otherwise. Of course, I appreciate that whatever our condition, whatever our internal reality – pain, stress, worry, anger – to a certain extent we all put on a ‘brave face’ to the outside world. However, when you find yourself speaking to somebody, as I did recently, chuckling as they described their CRPS pain flare as “the worst ever”, all I can say is…respect!
Living with CRPS involves coping with a myriad of symptoms – unremitting pain, fatigue, inflammation, brain fog, depression – the list goes on. Whilst dealing with this physical and emotional onslaught, perhaps clinging to the ability to smile and, dare I say it, even laugh, is fundamental to maintaining the belief that you are still a member of the human race. But it goes further than that; laughter really is a fantastic medicine. And when I say ‘medicine’, I do mean something that can bring about physical and emotional changes in the body – and there’s research to prove it.
The study of laughter and its effect on the body is even recognised as an ‘ology’ – gelotology.
Among the physical benefits of laughter are:
- reduced pain;
- boosted immunity;
- lower cholesterol;
- lower blood pressure;
- relaxed muscles.
Psychologically, laughter helps to:
- relieve stress;
- reduce anxiety;
- improve mood;
- improve confidence.
Laughter has been clinically proven to help all of the above. It releases endorphins, the body’s own opiate, helping you to de-stress and relax and providing some distraction from the pain. Laughter also suppresses the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine.
A study at Oxford University of subjects watching comedy videos in a controlled situation, concluded that laughter really does increase our pain threshold.
What have I got to laugh about?
It’s an old adage but the person with CRPS that I mentioned at the beginning of this article told me that if he wasn’t laughing he would be crying, but if he cried his pain would be worse.
Chronic pain can become all consuming and when it does, trying to focus on anything at all, let alone humour, can be a near impossibility. Finding something that is even vaguely amusing, let alone the prospect of erupting into side-splitting laughter, may seem a tall order. However, studies have shown that even self-induced laughter has the same positive effect on the body as spontaneous laughter.
Yes, there is such a thing as ‘laughter therapy’ and many books are available on the subject (search the usual internet retailers). As you might expect with self-help guides, they come packed with recommended exercises and techniques. However, many I have seen would be unsuitable for most people suffering chronic pain as they involve a significant amount of movement including, in some cases, dancing. There is even a form of Yoga based around laughter called Hasyayoga.
Of course, unless you’re particularly extrovert, laughter therapy does have the potential to be inhibited by our natural self-consciousness. If that’s a problem for you, you could just wait until everybody is out of the house. But frankly, who cares if people can hear you laughing? Laughter is infectious and they may just join in.
So here’s just a very simple exercise that I came across. Begin making the sound of a really deep belly laugh. Keep this going for as long as you can comfortably, perhaps a couple of minutes or even longer if you can manage to. According to the scientists, your body will already be releasing happy chemicals. When I first tried this, just the absurdity of what I was doing meant that very soon I found myself laughing spontaneously and, apparently, by performing this exercise several times a day, you will soon find yourself laughing more spontaneously anyway.
Also, don’t overlook the fairly obvious steps that we can all take to at least get us smiling if not laughing, even if it’s really the last thing you feel like doing. Perhaps read your child’s joke book. Dust off those comedy DVD box sets at the back of the cupboard or check out what the comedy channels have on offer.
Of course, laughter will not cure chronic pain or even reduce the need for medication or other forms of treatment. However, compared to the majority of complimentary therapies, laughter does have the advantage of being both free and fun.
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