A sense of humor has long been lauded as a positive approach to life, and we have all heard that laughter is the best medicine. But, are humor and laughter really good for us? And, can we rely on them to help us when we really need some help?
The research says yes to both questions: humor and laughter are good for us and they appear to be especially helpful when we are struggling with life’s challenges—a key reason addiction recovery jokes are often healthy as is a sense of humor about adversity overall. So, indeed, when we are down, overwhelmed, and pushed to our limits of coping, a sense of humor and laughter can both be excellent medicines. The story of one man, Norman Cousins, is a significant validation of this.
Laughing in the Face of Adversity
Norman Cousins was one of the first to write about personal healing through humor and laughter when dealing with adversity, particularly physical illness. He is often referred to as the ‘man who laughed in the face of death’—his own predicted and impending death, that is. With news from his doctor that he would not live very long, Cousins chose to make himself laugh, and laugh a lot every day as part of his own treatment plan for himself. He lived 20 plus years after he was told he would die soon. What are we to make of this?
His story certainly raises many good questions, and beyond that, now research explains why a sense of humor and laughter may have very well have been excellent medicine for him. And, why they may very well be for the rest of us, too. Science understands far more about this now, including the neuroscience, social aspects, and physiology of a good sense of humor and laughter.
The Body’s Reactions to Humor and Laughter
Cousins said that “Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without going outdoors”, and indeed, it is a physically beneficial and even aerobic event; the body changes when we laugh. Our internal organs are stimulated with increased oxygen, for example. Our muscles release tension and our brains increase their production of endorphins—our natural ‘feel good’ body chemistry. These are no small benefits, and our short list just scratches the surface of what employing a sense of humor and laughter can do for us
Over the long haul, humor and laughter have even more profound and positive effects. Our immune system improves, for instance, body pain can decrease, depression and anxiety can be relieved, and we can become more optimistic and resilient when faced with stress and adversity. There is no doubt that humor and the simple act of laughing help us at the moment we enjoy them and can help us for years to come if they are regular parts of our lives.
Humor, Laughter and Coping with Trauma
Dealing with trauma and any life adversity well is always challenging. And, it can be particularly challenging for people with substance abuse issues. Getting abstinent from substances and staying that way can be tricky. We don’t know what stress life will bring, and if substances have been our go-to coping strategy, we can hit some pretty rough spots in recovery.
Trauma can come from many situations and events. And, we can be affected by a single event for long periods of time, long after the event is over. Many people with substance problems in adulthood suffered traumatic experiences in childhood, for example. Similarly, we can also be affected by living in adverse conditions for a prolonged period and suffer long after we are no longer living in those conditions. The case of life in a dysfunctional family attests to this. Many get to adulthood with a great deal of work to be done to learn healthy coping. And, sadly, many of us experience a series of traumatic events and don’t have time to recuperate from one before dealing with another.
There are simply some events and conditions that terrify or horrify us, derail our natural development, push our coping strategies to the breaking point and deplete both our life strategies and resources. We are all vulnerable to trauma. In fact, it is estimated that about 70% of people in the U.S. have experienced a traumatic event, and almost 8 million people are thought to have the most severe reaction to trauma—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A great many trauma survivors have both PTSD and substance abuse problems. Substance use seems to be a common attempt to self-medicate trauma’s distressful effects.
Some can endure such occurrences without developing the debilitating symptoms of PTSD. However, we are not always optimally resilient in the face of such extreme challenges. For many, ‘bouncing back’ after traumatic exposure is not really a bounce. It is more a slow, and sometimes arduously slow, healing process. If substance use is severe enough, our healing can be postponed indefinitely. And, having an addiction becomes yet another potentially very traumatic experience.
There are many protective factors in everyday life that prepare us for recuperating after a shock, and things that can be done after a traumatic event to increase our chances of returning to ordinary life without PTSD. Some of these are coping with the event in an active way, not avoiding the issue, and having good family and/or social support. And, now with a growing volume of research into the benefits of humor and laughter, we can add those as protective factors, too. Studies show that incorporating humor and laughter as part of a trauma recovery plan is very beneficial.
The Brain and Laughing Our Ways to a Healthier Life
Humor and laughter have proven to involve very complex brain activity–to enliven specific areas of the brain and to coordinate their activities together. Consequently, both can be said to be a more holistic use of the brain’s resources. And, this impact upon the brain illumines why a sense of humor and laughing help us in adversity; they give us access to greater internal resources as they impact the brain, making us more resilient.
Robert Provine, who has done years of research into laughter. describes the contagious nature of laughing in his book, Laughter: a Scientific Investigation. He believes laughter is evidence of social neuroscience—that we share the impulse to laugh with others on a deep biological level because we need a connection between us. The world of positive psychology, for example, has found in research that one’s sense of humor has many valuable social functions. It helps us create social bonds and to interact more smoothly as others respond positively to us. Consequently, we have less stress, find greater meaning in life, and experience less loneliness and isolation.
For people in addiction recovery and those healing from trauma, all these benefits of humor are key elements in a good recovery plan: healing the brain after toxicity or trauma, enhancing our genuine connections with others, and finding meaning in everyday life.
So… All Those Recovery Jokes May Be Very Helpful
Of course, humor and jokes cannot erase painful memories or undo the past, but they can give us a lighter way of addressing our difficulties, and some reprieve from the harder work of recovery we face at times. They can also teach us valuable lessons as well. I’ll close this article with a joke about denial and the mind tricks we play on ourselves when in active addiction:
A man goes into a bar and orders 3 bottles of beer. After being served, he lines them up side by side and proceeds to sip from one then another and the other. He then starts the routine over again and goes on until all 3 bottles are emptied. And, he orders another round, doing the same.
When the man orders a 3rd round, the bartender says, “if you’d like your beers to stay colder I can just bring you one at a time”.
The man says no, I do it this way every time I drink. My 2 brothers and I vowed to drink this way, so we would be drinking together even though we’re in different parts of the world. When each of them drinks, they drink this way, too… a bottle for yourself and one for each of your 2 brothers.
One night the man returns to the same bar and orders 2 bottles of beer instead of his usual 3. The bartender takes notes and gives his condolences, thinking a brother has died.
The man replies, “Oh, no. My two brothers are fine, thank you. I only need 2 beers tonight because I have stopped drinking!”
If you or someone you love needs help with a substance abuse problem or the dual problem of substance abuse and trauma, we can help you find appropriate treatment programs for your specific clinical needs and preferences, as well as programs that take your insurance coverage. Recovery is more than possible and with the right help, you or your loved one can join countless others who have successfully entered recovery. Give us a call today.