Stress, depression, exhaustion and anxiety are frequent companions for caregivers along their journey of tending to a loved one. And over time these emotions do more damage than most of us acknowledge.
"Caregiver stress is prevalent, but often the risk is invisible," says Dr. Rosemary Laird, medical director of the Health First Aging Institute in Melbourne, Fla. "Because we can’t see stress, we ignore it. But the impact to the immune system can be significant, causing caregivers to become as ill as the person they are caring for.”
(MORE: Caregivers Need to Take a Break)
Complementary medicine — like massage therapy, aromatherapy and humor therapy — were once seen as fringe approaches outside responsible medical advice. Not today. Boomers backed with credible research have helped establish a more holistic view of our health needs, including a recognition of the impact of humor therapy.
Many Benefits of Humor Therapy
The movement was born in 1979 when journalist Norman Cousins wrote about his experiment in self-healing through laughter in his book, Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins had received a diagnosis of a type of arthritis known as ankylosing spondylitis, but the medications he was prescribed caused painful side effects. Eventually, he wrote, he left the hospital and moved into a hotel room, where he treated himself with vitamin C and a steady diet of humor books, sitcoms and Marx Brothers films. Cousins' symptoms faded. Although some critics have maintained that his condition may have been misdiagnosed and that his symptoms may have simply resolved themselves, his approach to self-healing gained wide popularity. Advocates of Cousins' ideas have since promoted the potency of laughter as medicine, and research has supported many of their claims.
In one recent study, psychoimmunologist Lee Berk of the Loma Linda University Medical Center in California found that laughter increased the production and activation of antibodies and what have been called "killer" cells that attack viruses and tumors in our bodies. That production was suppressed when the body suffered consistent long-term stress.
Research has shown that children laugh about 400 times a day and adults only 15. And yet one study found that 20 seconds of laughter is equivalent to three minutes on a rowing machine in terms of its benefits to lung function. As Cousins once said, "Hearty laughter is a good way to jog internally without having to go outdoors."
Some other proven health benefits of laughter include the relief of stress and its byproducts, such as inflammation and the chronic conditions that stem from it; lower "bad" cholesterol and elevated "good" cholesterol; increased elasticity of blood vessels; higher oxygen levels in the blood; improved cardiovascular function; and decreased pain, particularly in people undergoing chemotherapy, because of the distraction humor provides. Humor also encourages social interaction and well-being: Isolation, and the health problems it can fuel, are common health concerns for caregivers and the loved ones they aid.
Current programs promoting the benefits of humor therapy take many forms, from laughter yoga to "positivity education" for caregivers. Through her Hawn Foundation, actress, producer and advocate Goldie Hawn promotes MindUP, a program that helps caregivers and other adults and children facing stress.
"The landscape of the mind is an endlessly fascinating place," says Hawn, who launched the foundation after 9/11 to help people develop the social and emotional tools needed to think positively about the future even when facing tragedy. "Research proved that when we are stressed, anxious, bored or unhappy, we are much less able to cope with problems and take in new information.
"If we are happy, relaxed and curious, our brains open like a flower," she adds. "Not only does this help us to remember and properly process information, but it also gives us the ability to handle stress."
5 Ways to Get Giggles Into Your Day
Karyn Buxman, a registered nurse and self-styled "neuro-humorist" whose books include What’s So Funny About Heart Disease?, has seen the benefits of daily laughter for patients with diabetes, cancer and heart disease, as well as their caregivers, who often ask, “What if I’m not a funny person?” No problem, Buxman says. You don't need to be funny, you just need to see funny. "Most people can learn to be appreciators of humor while not having to be initiators," she says.
Here are some of her tips:
- Subscribe to an email or online "joke of the day" so you can start your morning with a laugh.
- Have coffee or lunch at least once a month with the funniest friend in your circle.
- Read humorous books or joke books. (My personal favorite is Nora Ephron's I Remember Nothing, which makes me laugh out loud.)
- As you go through your day, check out funny videos on YouTube — you can’t go wrong with the hilarious antics of babies or animals. As alternative medicine pioneer Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams once said, "Silly is the best pill you can take."