COMEDY

How Laughter And Comedy Can Help With Depression, Anxiety And Other Mental Illnesses

Is laughter the best medicine? Well, no. Medicine is. But it's still pretty good.

01/07/2016 12:16

The health benefits of laughing are widely chronicled. It releases endorphins, which make us feel happy, as well as other hormones linked with reducing stress, boosting immune response and strengthening social relationships.

When it comes to mental health, the release of these happy hormones are an excellent short-term relief, while a heightened level of social bonding can lead to longer term feelings of inclusion and the creation of support networks. Both are key elements in the fight against depression.

Gelotology - or the study of laughter - has long sought scientific answers to the potential health benefits of laughing.

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Laughter yoga (yes, laughter yoga) has been found to have a better effect on alleviating depression than regular exercise

There's even a collective of psychologists who dedicate their time to promoting the use of humour in a psychiatric setting. The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) is a group of experts who actively promote the use of laughter in the treatment of serious mental illness.

Writing in a HuffPost UK blog, laughter consultant Joe Bluett said: "Laughter has a way of instantly connecting people and is one of the most basic and fundamental ways in which we communicate as human beings. But more than that – laughter can increase confidence, self-esteem, creativity, positivity and resilience, bringing positive changes to all aspects of our lives.

"A number of my laughter club regulars have embraced huge positive changes in their lives – eg losing weight, returning to work after years of illness and/or depression; coping with serious health diagnosis and grief; coping with the isolation and stress of being a full time carer."

One study, published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, found that laughter yoga was more effective in alleviating the effects of depression in older women than normal exercise.

A report from Israel's University of Haifa found it "surprising that it has not been widely applied and researched in psychiatric settings, especially since this population is most in need of cost-efficient means to improve quality of life."

So the scientific community is clear that laughter is good for your mental health, but it doesn't simply stop there. There's a lot more that comedy can do to help with mental illness.

Stand-up comic Richard Herring once told the Scotsman he thought “there’s a sort of drug element” to being on stage.

He said: "It's the only place I feel I can lose myself."

There's also an element of catharsis in writing. Amber Tozer, author of 'Sober Stick Figure', says it helped her while she was struggling with depression and alcohol addiction.

"Writing in general has saved my life," she tells HuffPost UK. "I've been writing in journals for most of my life and it really clears out the crazy that goes on in my mind and quiets that nagging negative voice that's always telling me mean things."

Comedian and broadcaster Mark Dolan also echoed support for the therapeutic nature of writing.

“Writing is just good for the soul," he says. "Even if all you’re doing is writing gags about what it's like shopping at Lidl or Aldi or something, just the process of writing, somehow you’re just getting something out of yourself and putting it on paper. I think that’s good for you.”

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Amber Tozer's memoir 'Sober Stick Figure' follows her journey through alcohol addiciton

And it's not just about helping the performer. There's much more that comedy can do to help people with mental illnesses.

Comedians Taylor Glenn, John Robertson and Felicity Ward tell us of the times they've heard from people in the audience who were affected by the inclusion of mental health issues in their acts.

"I've been inundated with emails and Facebook messages," Australian comedian Ward says, "and people have gone to see doctors after my show which is amazing. I've had maybe three or four people say 'I'm writing this from a doctors' surgery, I saw your show yesterday'."

John Ryan, who has published research papers on the effectiveness of comedy in mental health, says the most important thing the industry could do is to reach people who wouldn't normally be exposed to discussions about mental well-being, while Russell Kane adds that comedy should be a way of opening up the debate.

Doug Segal and Mark Dolan suggest the best thing the industry can do to help people with mental health issues is to normalise illnesses, showing sufferers they aren't alone and people can be successful and lead normal lives while suffering from any mental disorder.

In addition to bringing laughter, which improves our mental health in various ways, the comedy industry offers an excellent outlet for people who need to get something off their chests, or take the power back by making light of their mental health problems. It also serves as an excellent way to reach new audiences and help them understand more about mental illnesses, as well as normalising disorders in the public eye.

To blog as part of The Best Medicine email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com

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