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Could Addiction be a Laughing Matter?
By Alison Palkhivala

Can you cackle away your cravings? Guffaw away your jonesing? As any addict can tell you, escaping drug and alcohol dependence is not that easy, but this doesn’t mean laughter can’t play a healing role. Laughter and humour are being used worldwide to treat pain, depression, anxiety, stress, and other disorders. So, why not addiction?

Evidence of the effectiveness of laughter and humour for treating depression, anxiety, stress, and even physical pain is mounting. In one study, women were able to tolerate the pain of having their hand submerged in ice cold water for longer if they watched a funny movie first. Psychologist Paul McGee of Laughter Remedy in Wilmington, DE has developed a humour training program that is being picked up worldwide as a way to manage stress and depression. A recent Swiss study has demonstrated that humour training combined with medication helps improve life satisfaction among elderly depressed patients.

“Laughologist” Albert Nerenberg is an expert on the therapeutic effects of laughter. He recently released a documentary on the topic called Laughology: The Movie, where it played to sold out crowds at the 2009 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, Ontario. Snickers and guffaws could be heard from the audience several minutes after the credits rolled, but the film is not just comedy; it also informs about laughter's many benefits.

“I believe that laughter is itself a language, and the primary positive form of communication between people," says Nerenberg. "It is a powerful way to reach people who might be otherwise unreachable. Because laughter is naturally contagious, it can be used to affect people who would otherwise be withdrawn. Laughter causes powerful de-stressing and calming changes in people and can elevate mood.”

Addicts Learn to Laugh Again

Alcohol & drug addiction treatment program with laughter therapy & other alternative therapiesBut why teach addicts to laugh? Because laughter has been shown to boost endorphin production and helps those suffering from addiction find joy and humour again, without resorting to drugs. Nerenberg and the addiction experts at Sobriety Home, a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located near Montreal, Quebec, have been breaking new ground by incorporating laughter therapy into a comprehensive addiction recovery program.

"Laughter therapy is proving to be a powerful salve for addicts who may otherwise feel themselves to be in a very dark place."

At Sobriety Home’s 6-week Laughter Workshop, “we go from one person to another and go ‘hah, hah, hah, hee, hee, hee’,” explains Sobriety Home director and addiction expert Catherine Cosgrove. “At first it feels like it’s forced because it is artificial. But if you’ve got 12 people doing this [soon] it’s not forced anymore. By the time you come back to the 12th person for the second time around, they’re really laughing.”

Getting High without Drugs

Both Nerenberg and Cosgrove were impressed with the results of their first Laughter Workshop. “The therapeutic aspect that I was interested in was, can we get [addicts] to find a way to increase those endorphins, to increase that sense of well-being that they used to get from the euphoria of their drug usage?” says Cosgrove.

Nerenberg is convinced they did just that. Many addiction experts assert that cocaine addicts cannot produce natural mood-elevating and pain-fighting endorphins without cocaine. Still, Nerenberg has been able to get cocaine addicts to comfortably hold otherwise painful martial arts positions simply by inducing intense laughter beforehand.

Holistic drug & alcohol addiction treatment

Act Happy, be Happy

Cosgrove points out that laughter therapy fits in with the Alcoholics Anonymous slogan of “fake it till you make it.” Pretending to be happy can actually help elevate mood, and laughter therapy provides addicts with an easy technique to cheer themselves. Laughter is free, and the technique requires no assistance from experts, tools, or medications.

She is also enthusiastic about adding laughter to her comprehensive treatment program because most other aspects of the treatment of addiction can sometimes feel pretty harsh. “When clients first come to see us, they’re often just starting on their road to recovery, and they aren’t yet able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They usually come in with a long history of loss: lost friendships, lost jobs, lost personal relationships, lost opportunities. For these people, treatment can at first seem to be very heavy; it can be very painful; it can be very sad. It’s amazing how a little laughter can lighten their mood and help them gain perspective.”

Nerenberg wholeheartedly agrees. He was moved by his experience at Sobriety Home, “It was really inspiring to see recovering addicts who had been sobbing inconsolably earlier that day laughing tears of joy,” he says. “The number one thing that makes laughter therapy so intriguing is that it seems to be able to get people liking themselves again,” says Nerenberg. For an addict, that can be a welcome gift, indeed.

Laughter Therapy Session with Albert Nerenberg

Albert Nerenberg, a 'laughology' specialist, is best known for his documentary 'Laughology' recently featured at Hot Docs. Here, we take a look at a laughter therapy session at the Quebec rehab facility Sobriety Home.

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