My journey over the past two decades with my wife, Sherri – whose life is filled daily with intense pain, brain fog, overwhelming fatigue and isolation – is full of more downs than ups. It seems like the easy thing to do would be to throw my hands up and scream. I joke sometimes that Murphy has nothing on what we go through each day.
Yet, despite all of the daily suffering, we try to laugh. We laugh at each other. She laughs at me more than I laugh at her, especially when I bolt straight up in the middle of the night and try to figure out what just made that noise and where I am. We laugh at the absurdity of each moment. We laugh when her medical records are lost for the umpteenth time. We laugh at I Love Lucy. I bought all 186 episodes and watched them each night for six months straight. She calls me her Ricky and I call her my Lucy.
The real question is, are we just crazy? Maybe we are not serious enough about her illness. I don’t believe that’s the case. I think we would go mad if we didn’t laugh when someone asks Sherri if she has tried Tylenol for her pain (seriously?). Well, let’s ask an expert. Say Karyn Buxman, RN. Her Masters of Science in Nursing is in Therapeutic Humor. She is the Past President of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor and the editor of the Journal of Nursing Jocularity. Karyn is also the author of the new What So Funny About series of books. She has been a long time Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) Advisory Board member and a personal friend of Sherri’s and mine. Did I mention she is also in the National Speaker Hall of Fame? I could go on.
Karyn, take it away…
What’s not funny about disabilities?
A diabetic, a blind man and an amputee walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this – some kind of joke?”
Having a disability is no joke. But it can be a laughing matter. Pain, suffering, isolation, stress, depression, financial hardships – the problems can seem never ending. And to survive you need all the possible tools in your tool belt that you can find. One tool that is frequently overlooked is humor.
Science is affirming what we’ve suspected all along – laughter is good medicine. The benefits for you are so numerous that you are not going to want to wait for humor to happen by chance. You’ll want to be proactive and experience humor by choice. And the good news is, you don’t have to be funny. You just have to see funny.
What can humor do for you?
We’ve known for many years that negative emotions can wreak havoc on your body. Feelings of sadness, depression, fear, anxiety and stress can actually compound many of the issues you or your loved one may already be suffering as a result of a disability. For instance, stress is now known to exacerbate health problems such as diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, COPD, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, migraines, cardiovascular disease, depression and many more.
Stress raises hormones that cause an inflammatory response throughout your body. Studies show that laughing lowers your levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This may be reflected in lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, improved circulation, enhanced digestion, decreased inflammation, and diminished pain and discomfort, just to mention a few. Another physical benefit of humor and laughter is decreased muscle tension – another great pain reliever.
In my opinion, language was invented in order for people to communicate, whereas humor was invented in order for people to complain. Dealing with a chronic disease can trigger anger – and humor is a wonderful way to help process the negative emotions. And while people will run like the building is on fire when a complainer approaches, humor can be a socially acceptable – even enjoyable – way for people to vent.
Part of having a disability – any disability – is that you’re going to feel frustrated, you’re going to be angry, you’re going to have moments when you are filled with rage. It’s unrealistic to think that embracing humor as a coping strategy is going to eliminate those feelings. But repressed anger can make your symptoms even worse.
Humor redirects anger, instead of avoiding or denying it. This redirection can defuse a lot of rage, bringing with it a sense of calm, relief and a fresh perspective. The underlying circumstances that made you angry still exist, but after you’ve laughed, you’re better prepared to address those circumstances.
Humor is an effective way to combat social isolation. You can use humor to directly address some of the issues that crop up in your relationships. Humor has been found to strengthen existing relationships (which is good if you like the people you know!). Regular use of humor is thought to make us more attractive to other people, which can increase your social circle and your base of support (this is good news if you don’t like the people you currently know).
But can you help me be funny?
Now that you understand some of the benefits of humor, let’s look at how you can proactively make this part of your daily routine. Here are seven tips on how you can increase your Laughter Factor:
1. First assume that there is humor to be found. If your assumption is that nothing funny is happening around you – then you miss it. Yet if you believe that something humorous is waiting to be found – you will discover it.
2. Raise your awareness. If you are proactively looking and listening for something humorous, you will see and hear what most others miss. Like the tourist who called a hotel in Florida wanting to know “Which beach is closest to the water?” Or the 5 year-old who asked his grandmother “Why doesn’t your skin fit your face?”
3. Manipulate your environment. Surround your living and working space with playful and entertaining items. These might be toys or games; funny books and DVDs; whimsical signs, cartoons, art, or posters; colorful clothing; entertaining CDs or mp3s. If you have fun things in your environment, you increase your likelihood of laughter.
4. Create a Play List. Write down at least 10, preferably 20, things you find fun to do. Ideally half of the items on your list should cost little or nothing to do. The plan: Next time you are feeling uncomfortable, sad or fatigued, pull out your list and make an agreement with yourself to do at least one item on your list. Don’t wait to feel better to play. Play and then feel better.
5. Use the Internet. There are numerous joke and cartoon sites – bookmark them and check them out on a routine basis. And YouTube has a plethora of clips that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. (For starters, type “laughing babies” into the search box. What is more contagious than a baby’s laugh?!)
6. Laugh anyway. If there is nothing funny to be found, fake it ‘til you make it – your body may not know the difference. And often it will become real laughter. If you want guidance, there are groups that teach how to laugh for no reason. Check out World Laughter Tour or Laughter Yoga.
7. Laugh at yourself. When all is said and done, you can take your disability seriously – it’s serious stuff. But you can take yourself lightly. Learn to separate the two. You are not your disability. You are an amazing and amusing individual with a rich resource of life experiences.
Hopefully with the tools and information I’ve given you, you can put yourself and your life in their proper perspective. Laugh at your mistakes, your foibles and your embarrassing moments, as well as your successes, your pleasures and your joy-filled moments. And don’t wait for humor to happen by chance. Experience by choice and reap the benefits today!
We hope this has been a very insightful article for you. We plan to bring you more like it in future Disability.gov blogs. Karyn Buxman joined the Invisible Disabilities Association on September 27th for the first ever Online True Help® DisabilityWeb Expo, which was sponsored by Allsup, for one of our online Expert Chats. Learn more about this event and many more on our website!
This article was first published on Disability.Blog by Disability.gov. August 24, 2012.
The Visible Invisible Disability (coming soon)