Hephzibah Kaplan, art psychotherapist, on how laughter can be used as a coping mechanism for the ups and downs of life
Human suffering is not funny. Mental health conditions may include anxiety, depression, emotional fragility, psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and a whole host of other ailments that affect people’s ability to regulate their moods, their thinking, their concentration, their dreams and may create havoc in their relationships with themselves and with others.
How can laughter help alleviate some of these symptoms? There have always been clowns, comedians and TV shows aiming to make people laugh at the misfortune of others. From slipping on the banana skin, to the French farces of compromising situations, to the set-ups of ‘Are you being framed?’ and more. In these scenarios we are invited to laugh at the ridicule, the humiliation, the hypocrisy of others. Sometimes painful to laugh at but if you do find some of this funny, the laughter elicited has immediate health benefits summarised in this useful memonic.
S Stress reduction shown by lowered adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol.
M Muscular relaxation proved by myelography.
I Immunity increased shown by increased antibody production.
L Lungs empty themselves of old air.
E Exercise. A belly laugh is actually good exercise.
E Endorphins (the body’s natural high making hormones) are increased.
These physiological benefits will also promote better mental health as the all-important endorphin levels are raised. The more you laugh, the better you will feel, so find your brand of comedy that gets you laughing as a starting point.
Laughter brings immediate transcendental pleasure. Whoever says they hate it when their body pulsates with joy, giving some momentary relief from the day-to-day struggles? Each time one laughs the heaviness lifts and when you laugh it is very hard to think of anything else.
One of my clients attended a stand-up comedy course as part of her mental health recovery. In the final session of the course all the participants had to do a five-minute gig in front of the others on the course. In developing her comedy routine she had to dig deep to find the funny in her own predicament. In order to see the funny side of how she had sabotaged herself (leading to a severe breakdown) she had to step outside of herself to identify that inner saboteur which she then made fun of.
She identified her inner ‘control freak’ and found ways to lampoon herself on stage with excellent delivery and timing. This process helped her increase her objectivity ¬– looking at herself from the outside-in rather than the inside-out ¬– as well as foster a greater sense of agency in her healthier self.
We may not have to enrol on a comedy course to do this. If we can identify the parts of ourselves that are holding us back, or perhaps dominating our thinking, we can use humour to quieten these parts down and lessen their influence over us.
Another client suffering from much anxiety and insecurity was always expecting the worst possible outcome for every situation. This is also known as catastrophising. His worries were paralysing him in moving forward.
In an early session while getting to know him a bit more, I warmly asked him if he was blessed with the gift to predict the future, did he foresee stuff in his dreams, did he have an active pre-conscious? He said he was not endowed with this talent at all.
I had had prior permission from him to use a specialist approach in therapy called Provocative Therapy ¬– the cutting edge in the use of humour and reverse psychology ¬¬– so I teased him about his malfunctioning ‘Prophet of Doom’.
I cajoled him to listen closely to his inner Prophet of Doom and ignore the scientific data that the prophet was consistently wrong. The client was deeply amused by identifying the part of himself that catastrophised and decided himself to ignore it more often, and in doing so has lessened his anxiety. If you can identify the parts of you that are holding you back, this approach to recovery can be very helpful.
Almost Happy is not a panacea for deeper complex trauma. It may not suit you if you feel very detached from your sense of humour, but there are some useful ideas in there if you want to learn how to start identifying the parts of you, as well as of others, that have become too overbearing and see how one may be teased back to a healthier frame of mind.
Hephzibah Kaplan is the co-author of Almost Happy: Pushing Your Buttons With Reverse Psychology with Dr. Brian Kaplan, out now, £16