Dave walks into my office, sits down and says, “Hey John, have you heard this one? A man walks into the psychiatrist’s office wearing nothing but a thin layer of saran/cling wrap… The psychiatrist says to the man – ‘I can clearly see your nuts.’”
So begins my regular meeting with Dave. He always begins and ends with a joke. However, the conversations between such bookends are anything but funny. In our meetings, Dave talks about his experiences of the chaos he survived growing up, and the intense effort it takes to leave this in the past. As I get to know Dave, he tells me humour is his way of dealing with the horrors of his childhood. “If I don’t laugh, I will cry, and I do enough of that already.” This theme of laughter as healing – as connecting – as surviving – is one I have noted in many contexts. Laughter is a normal and natural means of dealing with difficult subjects. Mark Twain says it best: “The human race has only really effective weapon and that is laughter.”
As a counsellor working with people standing up to heavy issues such as trauma, mental health concerns, and addiction, laughter is a welcome companion to me in my work. I have come to see laughter as both a tool and a by-product of the therapeutic process. Laughter has many positives: it promotes connection, provides relief, has physical and psychological benefits, and encourages helper health. Awareness of these benefits better promotes intentionality in the use of lightness and laughter.
Recently, I received some valued feedback after leading a training: “John’s laughter is contagious.” Laughter spreads, but so do other strong emotions such as fear, sorrow, and despair. People naturally connect over extremes in experiences – the good (laughing), and the challenging (supporting after challenge). The therapeutic process can mirror both experiences and contains opportunities to embrace both the light and the dark.
As a starting place, I have found it helpful to connect with new clients in a ‘lighter manner’. People see me for help with serious problems, but a lighter approach allows us to ease into the heaviness. Laughter and lightness can set this stage, and such an approach humanizes myself as the counsellor. It tears down some of the myths of the counsellor as a stoic individual psychoanalyzing every move. Lightness and laughter connects us, opening the door to the heavier topics as well.
Laughter Provides Needed Relief – Part of the Therapeutic Process
A client of mine recently joked with me about his experience of counselling. “John, you are a good guy, but I hate coming to see you. When we meet, you take me to the abyss and I have learned to look into this. I hate this… but I learn from it. What you do then, is you help me walk back from this abyss. When you do this, I like you again. As long as we keep this up, I will keep coming back.”
I often use the metaphor of a feather falling to illustrate my preferred therapeutic process. As the feather falls, there is back and forth movement in a specific direction. As a counsellor, I seek to follow this path in that I want to walk with the person(s) into challenge, and then walk them back from it as well. When this occurs, there is great potential for learning, resilience, and growth.
When initially meeting with people, I have found it helpful to be transparent in naming this process of back and forth into challenge. I inquire about what may help them in talking about the challenge, and what may help them move away from it (provide relief) in our meetings. People often talk about appreciating humour as a source of relief. This is a great segue to how we may use humour in our meetings and how they as individuals may have used it in the past.
Physical and Psychological Wellbeing
We all know the cliché that laughter is the best medicine. There is truth to this. Laughter has been shown to have numerous physical benefits:
• Reduces tension, stress hormones, and risk of heart disease
• Increases the feel-good chemicals (dopamine and endorphins)
• Boosts the immune system
Laughter also has psychological benefits:
• Counteracts depressive and anxious symptoms (laughing gas is being used in some circumstances as a treatment for depression)
• Reduces stress
• Boosts mood
• Stimulates creativity
• Improves memory
• Increases resilience
(Visit the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association website for a more extensive list of the benefits of laughter)
Laughter is also good for us collectively. In fact, it has been speculated that laughter was part of the earliest forms of communication. We can see this in babies! Laughter communicates and connects. When I work with families or groups and I hear laughter, I hear health. Where there is no laughter, problems tend to grow.
As a regular part of my practice, I encourage clients to pay attention to their experiences of laughter and to seek opportunities to laugh more.
Much of my career has focused on supporting people dealing with immense challenges. I love my work and benefit tremendously from it as I walk alongside clients’ resiliency and growth. Nevertheless, the heaviness of these topics does get to me from time to time. As helpers, we are all vulnerable to the downsides of helping – compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout. Warning signs that such problems are developing include: exhaustion, increased anxiousness, isolating, lower mood, etc. Laughter quite literally is the vaccine – a shot in the arm against such problems. Much like when I’m with my clients, I seek out laughter and am happy to note I find it often in all areas of my life, both personally and professionally. When I see laughter in myself, I see signs of health.
Laughter connects, restores, and revitalizes. We need it. Laughter is good for us in all areas and should be an encouraging and welcome part of a helping relationship.
“Comedy is defiance. It’s a snort of contempt in the face of fear and anxiety. And it’s the laughter that allows hope to creep back on the inhale”