Laughter Therapy Helps Treat Addiction

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No Joke: You May Be Able to Laugh Yourself Off Drugs and Alcohol.
By Albert Nerenberg

Albert Nerenberg is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist and is Foundation’s Laughologist in residence. Nerenberg has directed several TV documentaries about the science of laughter and helped develop Sobriety Home’s Laughter Therapy program. He writes about new modalities for healing, health and wellness.

Laughter therapy shows promise in treating addiction at Drug Rehab.  Few things sound more insane than treating drug addiction with laugher.

But what if it works?

I know, I know: there’s nothing funny about addiction, and folks who have spent the last few months intoxicating their bodies within inches of their lives are probably not in the mood to sit around and chuckle.

But what if it were possible?

I wouldn’t believe it either if I hadn’t seen it for myself. A few years ago, researching a documentary about laughter, I was surprised to come across a scientific study that compared cocaine to laughter. It turns out that both cocaine and laughing produce dopamine, in similar ways, in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This group of Stanford University researchers discovered that when test subjects reacted to funny cartoons, their laughter lit up the same brain reward circuitry as cocaine. In fact, in addition to cocaine and amphetamines, almost every recreational drug has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens.

Laughter Produces Same Reaction As Drugs

Really, that makes sense. Anyone who’s had a good laughing fit knows it’s a powerful kind of high, one that many might describe as better than drugs. After all, recreational drugs are basically hijacking the brain reward system. That’s why drugs initially feel initially so “rewarding” before they become addictive.

So, are you thinking what I’m thinking? What if you took someone suffering from a debilitating, life threatening drug addiction and just got them to laugh—a lot?
Well, there’s a catch or two. The first is that you need to laugh hard to produce dopamine. But the second is perhaps even more daunting: if you want laughter to replace the urge for a drug, you need to laugh on command. Most people think that’s impossible.

What if I told you it wasn’t?

There are new techniques that allow people to learn to laugh, and laugh hard, anytime they want to. The most famous is Laughter Yoga, but they include Laughter Therapy, “Laughercize”, and the “Laughter Party”. Most of the techniques are based on natural triggers for contagious laughter, including smiling and eye contact. That’s because if you exercise your laugh in a group situation, you can find yourself provoked into laughing heavily. Recovering drug addicts quickly find themselves laughing at a buddy’s laugh or at themselves and the crap they’ve gone through.

As part of directing the CTV documentary Laughology, I had the opportunity to be trained in and help develop some of these techniques. What’s amazing is that when you learn these techniques, you find you can laugh heartily almost any time you feel like it. Of course, you do risk people thinking you’re crazy, especially if they don’t know what you’re doing.

I had the opportunity to test the addiction treatment theory when I got a call one day from the Sobriety Home Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center a short drive from Ottawa. Catherine Cosgrove, the director of Sobriety Home and herself a researcher, had coincidentally come across the same study and was thinking along the same lines. She suggested I come to the centre and try to get recovering drug addicts to laugh.

Sobriety Home is situated on a lovely farm next to the winding Chateauguay river. The rehab centre works from the principle that exercise and nature, in addition to therapy, are the best forms of detox. They mix traditional rehab approaches as well as more experimental ones; there is a sense that drug rehab is not what it could be, given the number of relapses, and that we should be looking for more effective approaches.

Laughter Therapy Put to the Test

Now, I’ve done laughter workshops with some tough crowds: cancer survivors, accountants, kids in the Tanzanian jungle, and toughest of all, drunken bankers. But sitting with this group of people from the drug rehab center was the most unsettling of all. I found myself staring out at a crowd of heroin addicts, Oxycontin addicts, and drunks. Some people were covered with bandages, others couldn’t sit still, and most looked miserable and angry.

The first few minutes of the workshop were particularly tough, with people looking at each other as if to say, “What kind of crap is this? “ But then a weird thing happened. Once a few people started laughing, the feeling caught on. When it caught on, people really started to laugh. In fact, I learned something that I’ve observed often since: recovering addicts are terrific laughers, better than average, even. 

Why would that be? There are two possible reasons. After living as an addict for years, you’ve probably lost some of your inhibitions. You also have a lot of pain you want to relieve. But more intriguingly, people who get addicted to drugs are people who like to have fun and laugh in the first place. Sadly, it’s that same pursuit that may have gotten them into trouble.

At the suggestion of Sobriety Home, we made the workshops a regular event. And guess what? We found people wanted to do them. They described improvements in mood and health. They described feeling more optimistic, and most importantly, the laughing took their minds off their troubles.

At that point, we weren’t applying laughter techniques directly as addiction treatment. The drug rehab center had formal therapies for that. We were trying to see if we could elevate people’s moods and give them some new tools to fight depression.

This is too much fun for a drug rehab

The laughter therapy had multiple components: we taught people the techniques; we had them practice the techniques in groups; then we took pictures of them, first without laughter, then with it. We showed them the before and after photographs to let them see how beautiful they looked when they laughed. The effects could be dramatic. You could virtually see people thinking, “This is too much fun for a drug rehab”.

After a few years of developing a process at Sobriety Home, we happened upon something interesting. The Laughter Party is a social trend where people hold a party and laugh non-stop. It’s based on the idea that humans evolved around campfires, where they laughed and regaled each other with stories. So, if you put a group of people in a tight circle and introduce laughter techniques, you can precipitate powerful group laughing fits that go on and on.

Would the laughter party idea work at the alcohol drug rehab centre? We gave it a try with a fantastic group of recovering addicts. We gathered in the Sobriety Home courtyard and explained the idea. Naturally, people were skeptical, but because this group already had training, within minutes they were laughing. Then an incredible thing happened, seemingly by itself.  The party exploded. The combination of physical closeness, intimacy from spending weeks in drug rehab together, and mastery of laughing techniques led to true laughing fits. People laughed until there were tears in their eyes, and some people fell off their chairs and continued laughing on the ground.

We made a documentary about the process called Hooked on a Feeling.

That group showed us something that gave me chills. One of the tragic consequences of drug addiction is that, in recovery, people often have to turn their backs on some of the most fun things in life, like parties. Yet the rehab laughter party looked like the wildest kind of party. There were people crawling on the ground laughing, they were hugging and teasing each other, and there were no toxic substances involved. In fact, the evidence suggests that laughing fits likely strengthen the heart and the immune system. We had found a way to back to some of the most fun you can have on the planet, without negative side effects.

The jury’s still out on whether you can actually cure a major drug addiction with laughter. I think to do that we would need to have an intense regimen, a protracted period to apply it, and an appropriate research group to measure it. However, one thing is clear: laughter therapy is an emotional boost to people in the course of rebuilding their lives. And given the harshness, the misery, and failure rates seen in many drug rehab programs, laughing your way out of addiction could be worth a shot.

Albert Nerenberg

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Laughter Therapy Helps Treat Addiction