Can Laughter Therapy Help People with Parkinson’s Disease?
There is nothing like a good laugh that starts deep in your belly, brings you to tears, and leaves you feeling better than you did before.
Researchers are now investigating whether laughter – in particular, laughter therapy – might be an effective therapy for symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD). A recent study also shows the promise of improvisational comedy in helping people with PD increase their ability to focus, ease communication, and just feel good.1
The power of laughter to help cope
Developed in the 1960s in India, laughter therapy has been practiced in yoga studios and alternative health centers around the world. During a laughter therapy session, groups of people use breathing exercises and body movements to create laugh-like sounds that often become real laughter. Sound silly? Well, that’s the point.2
But seriously: laughter therapy has been getting a lot of attention from doctors and researchers as a possible alternative therapy for PD. A recent clinical trial explored its benefits during hour-long sessions held by a certified laughter therapist. The laughter produced by these exercises can help:2
- Strengthen the muscles used to breathe
- Lift people’s moods
- Relieve pain and stress
Researchers believe those effects can provide particular relief to people with certain neurological conditions, such as PD, multiple sclerosis, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).2
Express yourself through inprovisational comedy
Another recent study harnessed the power of improvisational comedy. Simply called “improv,” this is an unscripted, spontaneous form of comedy. An improv performance often starts with audience members shouting out a theme. Performers then act out a skit based on that theme.
Improv actors have a motto: “Yes, and…” It means that you should accept whatever idea your fellow performers suggest and then add your own spin to keep the performance going. This attitude usually results in actions that are wildly unexpected...and often hilarious.
Researchers at Northwestern University’s Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center see improv’s potential as an expressive therapy for people with PD. This means combining the arts (such as playing music, dancing, or writing creatively) with mental healthcare. What makes improv unique as an expressive therapy is that it is performed in a group, in the moment. It is a mental and a physical exercise that keeps you on your toes.1
Say “yes” to improv
In a study led by researchers at Northwestern’s center, people with PD enrolled in a 12-week class led by teachers from one the most famous improv theaters, Chicago’s The Second City®. If you haven’t heard of it, you have probably heard of some of its former members, such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Steve Carell.1
By the end of the study, every person who participated stated that they enjoyed the experience and would recommend improv classes to other people with PD. All but one person felt that improv helped their PD symptoms. Plus, the researchers running the study measured significant improvement in participants’ motor symptoms.1
Tickle your own funny bone
Laughter therapy classes and improv theaters have popped up all over the country, and online versions of these are available too. But those of us with stage fright can create our own laughter therapy experiences by watching a funny show, internet video, or stand-up comedy special. You can also reach out to a friend with PD and laugh over the ups and downs that only a fellow person with PD will appreciate.
Real laughter is sometimes in short supply when you have a chronic illness. But laughter therapy can fill that gap and is likely to create memories that will give you a chuckle whenever they come to mind.
What do you do to make yourself laugh? Let us know in the comments.
Do you think there is enough awareness of Parkinson's disease?