The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Using Humor and Laughter

Mary, George’s caregiver, is learning how to use the connections between feelings and thinking to decrease her bouts of situational depression. Last week, she learned about how talking about unpleasant events and giving names to negative emotions decreases their power. She also learned the talking about happy events made her feel even better…and that writing about both could also be helpful. She learned to do her work with the negative emotions away from George because he’d take it all personally, but to include him in her positive stuff because it would make him feel better too.

Mary is still working on using emotions to decrease her depression. This week, humor is the subject. Humor is a multi-part process:
  1. Something "funny" – “How do you stop an elephant from charging? Take away his credit card.” This joke contains something that doesn’t fit our preconceptions, and a resolution. Mary knows she can’t stop an elephant with a piece of plastic, but when she changes the meaning of the word “charge” then it works—and she laughs. Humor can also be simpler, or “slapstick.” Someone else gets a pie in the face, stumbles and falls, or gets embarrassed. Mary sees someone in one of these uncomfortable situations and laughs, mainly as a response to the relief that it's “not me.”
  2. Perception and understanding. Obviously, understanding the elephant joke requires thinking skills. That’s why George often doesn’t see the humor in things. But he still understands slapstick humor which requires less thinking.
  3. Appreciation: When Mary “gets” a joke, her brain rewards her with dopamine, which among other things, makes her happier. However, depression tends to attack the areas of the brain that secrete this neurotransmitter. Thus Mary may get the joke, but won’t be able to appreciate it. The good news is that if the joke is funny enough, other areas of the brain come into play to help the normal dopamine secreting centers overcome the blockage. George has PDD, the kind of Lewy body dementia that starts with Parkinson’s. With PD, Lewy bodies attack dopamine and so there is already a limited amount available. Thus, even if George understands the joke, it may not seem funny to him. His dopamine production isn’t blocked, it is depleted.
  4. Expression: Laughter and smiling require motor and language abilities that Mary has but George is losing. Depression seldom affects motor abilities. George’s PD does. He may be able to understand a joke and even appreciate it but have difficulty demonstrating that he can. Mary can watch for other non-verbal cues, like a thumbs-up signal.
  5. Better mood—and health. Laughter is healing. It stimulates Mary’s brain to secrete endorphins like serotonin which increase happiness and decrease depression. These chemicals also improve Mary’s general health by boosting the immune system. Finally, the very act of laughing brings more oxygen into Mary’s body and stimulates motion, stability and balance.

Now all of this may sound very complicated. But actually, there’s a shortcut. Mary can skip to step 4, and simply laugh. It doesn’t really matter what she laughs about. She can just laugh, laugh til her sides split. Her brain cannot differentiate between pretend and genuine laughter. And the more she laughs, the better she will feel.

Laughter is contagious and so if she does it with George, he’ll soon be laughing too…or doing his best to do so. Of course, Mary must be careful that George doesn’t think she is laughing at him. A good way to do this is to laugh at LEWY, and the problems IT causes…not George.

Mary has become a convert to “Laughter Yoga,” started in Florida in 1995 by Dr. Madan Katarina. It is a combination of clapping, breathing and laughing. Motion creates emotion. Breathing increases the oxygen in the blood. And laughter, well, we already know what it does!

Give Laughter Yoga a try—It’s easy and fun. You can do it in a group or at home, alone or with your loved one. It is almost too easy to be effective. But try it and see what you think.
  • Clap your hands in rhythm: One, Two -- One-Two-Three! (repeat 2 times--or more)
  • Now laugh in rhythm while you clap: "Ho, Ho — Ha-Ha-Ha!" (repeat 2 times--or more)
  • Expel all the air from your lungs and pretend you're smelling a flower." (Hold an imaginary flower to your nose and exhale and inhale several times…remember to breath out longer than you breath in to prevent hyperventilation.)
  • Now, laugh from your heart: Place your hands on your heart and laugh…and laugh.
  • Now, laugh like you don’t care:. Throw up your arms high and laugh even louder. And laugh and laugh.
I'll bet you feel better, happier, more energetic, less stressed.

There’s more! Next week, I have still more to share about making emotions work for you instead of against you.

For information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia

Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a physician's advice.

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