Laughter as Mental Health Therapy

Originally published January 25, 2007 by
Kristen Driscoll

Humor therapy, a recent and growing trend in mental health counseling, is defined at the use of humor for the relief of physical or emotional pain or stress.
The use of humor for psychological benefit may include interventions such as laughter exercises or a process of assisting clients to gain humorous perspectives on their lives and situations.
Laughter groups are a common method for practicing humor therapy. Today, thousands of people in over forty countries participate in laughter groups. This speaks to the popularity of this form of treatment. Humor is generally used by therapists to increase quality of life, reduce stress and increase relaxation.

The process of laughter has enormous physiological benefits that provide positive mental and physical health improvements. Laughter actually shuts down
the flow of stress hormones which suppress the immune system. The process of laughing increases the heart rate, blood flow and instigates biochemical changes. Laughter also
increases tolerance to pain. During laughter, the body increases the amount of T-Cells in the blood as well.

Laughter is cathartic. It serves as a release mechanism for negative emotions such as anger, sadness and fear. Research shows that laughter can serve to
reduce stress long after a bout of laughter has ended. A bout of laughter also insights relaxation and inhibits the fight-or-flight response. Laughter is also believed
to strengthen human connection and instigate interpersonal bonding. Laughter is useful for decreasing interpersonal tension. What’s more, research shows
that physically healthy people are more likely than those who suffer from heart
disease to laugh more often and use humor to get out of uncomfortable situations. Humor serves to teach mental health clients that they possess the ability to manage
their emotional states. Humor can increase the desire to choose activity over inactivity.

The great news for counselors, who wish to use laughter as a
treatment method, is that being funny is optional. The benefits of laughter are applicable regardless of the reason for the behavior. Hence, the laughter exercises can teach clients to laugh for no particular reason. Though many times, the hilarity of laughter itself is catching and produces a situation funny enough to evoke real laughter.

One process for therapeutic a laughter group session is found in the Manuel of Laughter Groups. The manual suggests that the session begins with the introduction
of breathing exercises. Neck and shoulder exercises are also introduced. These are used to loosen up physical and emotional tension while stretching the
lungs and abdomen. The leader then demonstrates three laughs. The first laugh, called the Tee-He He laugh is done in a high voice with the chin raised.
The next laugh, the Ha Ha Ha laugh is done in a mid-ranged tone and generally comes from the chest. The third laugh is the Ho Ho Ho, or Santa laugh. This
is a deep laugh that comes from the belly. After these methods have been demonstrated by the leader, the group is invited to engage in each one accompanied
by hand-claps. This is considered the warm up. This part of the group session is aimed at engaging the clients and allowing them to feel comfortable with
the process.

Another form of humor therapy focuses less on engaging clients in the actual process of laughter and seeks to teach clients to see the humor of life independently.
The Association for Applied Therapeutic Humor suggests a three part method for humor cultivating processes. First, people are taught to look for ironies
in life. Life is full of ironic situations that can be brought to light through humorous exaggeration. It may be helpful to encourage a client to examine
ironies in the world around him or her before applying this technique to their own life. However, once a person begins to appreciate the humor in ironic
situations, this may very easily be applied to personal emotional issues as well. Secondly, a person is encouraged to practice the process of reframing.
In this light, failings and challenges can be reframed in a humorous light. For instance, instead of calling oneself a looser, one may appreciate that
they are extremely successful at coming in last. Thirdly, it can help to practice seeing things as funny. Exercises such as noticing multiple layers of
meaning in everyday words and phrases that people choose can help clients to lighten up. Humor can be learned and it is contagious.

Another exercise that can be taught is laughter meditation. A therapist may practice this with the client and then assign it as homework or encourage the
client to find time to engage in a laughter meditation. One example of a laughter meditation exercise follows:

Upon waking in the morning, stretch every muscle in your body like a cat. Sit still for a few moments and then start laughing. It may be necessary to force
laughter a little at the beginning. Some techniques for starting a laugh include simply saying ‘Ha, Ha, Ha,’ or ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ to get the laughter energy

Allow a spontaneous laughter to arise. Most likely, the sound of laughter attempts will be amusing enough to insight natural laughter. Try it for five minutes. If natural laughter does not occur, simply continue to practice the mechanisms of laughter.

It is a good idea to repeat this process at bedtime and various times throughout the day. Some ideas may be while in the shower, while stuck in traffic,
as a break in the office and so on. Soon, most people find that the forced laughter words of “Ha ha ha,” or “He he he” increase their mood and elicit a physical response in their

Practices such as this one can help to free people from constant thought process. It is an instant meditation that allows escape from daily life. Incorporating a process such as laughter
meditation into one’s life can bring more inner peace, help a person to deal with life’s tough situations and bring about greater mental and physical health. Using
laughter as medicinal therapy is not a new phenomenon.
Haasya Yoga has incorporated laughter exercises in a practice designed to enhance well-being for centuries. This yogic practice is designed with stretches, breathing
exercises and a variety of laughs that incorporate breathing techniques. Yogis believe that laughter exercises increase the capacity for spontaneous, natural
laughter. In addition, many Yogic masters hold that laughter is the way to enlightenment.

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