Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that affects the control and coordination of body movements. It starts with the slow degeneration of dopamine-producing cells well before any noticeable motor symptoms appear. The motor symptoms start to appear when up to 50-70% of the dopamine producing-cells are destroyed. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that helps to regulate smooth, coordinated movements and muscle function. The symptoms of Parkinson’s occur as a result of a dopamine loss.
People living with Parkinson’s will experience symptoms differently. The motor symptoms of this condition commonly include:
- Tremor, usually a resting tremor that starts on one side of the body.
- Rigidity, a stiffness and cogwheeling (a jerky effect) of joints.
- Akinesia, difficulty initiating movement and bradykinesia, slowness of movement.
- Postural disturbances, which affect balance.
Other motor symptoms may include episodes of dystonia (where muscles involuntarily contract or spasm), freezing, muscle cramping, decreased facial expression or ‘masked face’, micrographia (very small handwriting), slurred or rapid speech and mumbling.
However, there are several non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s too and these symptoms tend to appear first. It is common for people to experience a loss of smell, sleeping difficulties, fatigue, lethargy, constipation, pain, anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression fuel many of the other symptoms of Parkinson’s and make the condition even harder to live with. Furthermore, symptoms of Parkinson’s may cause self-consciousness, limit one’s ability to socialise and may result in social isolation.
How can a therapeutic approach to laughter, such as laughter yoga, help people living with Parkinson’s?
Laughter stimulates all parts of the brain. This includes the parts of the brain that produce dopamine. Laughter enables dopamine to be released into the system and this is helpful for alleviating some of the physical and emotional symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Laughter reduces stress and anxiety levels. When people feel stressed or anxious the sympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s stress response, becomes activated and the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. The brain becomes highly alert, cortisol (a stress hormone) is pumped through the system, the heart rate and breathing rate increase and people may sweat. Laughter yoga involves laughing and deep breathing techniques, both of which activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s relaxation response. Laughter and deep breathing exercises stimulate the diaphragm and place and emphasis on exhalation, rather than inhalation. This reduces cortisol levels and relaxes the mind and body.
Laughter provides pain relief. It releases endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s natural pain killers and pumps these through the system. Laughter also improves tolerance for pain, as it takes people’s mind off the pain they are experiencing.
Laughter releases a cocktail of happy hormones, including dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. The biochemical changes that occur during laughter create a more positive state of mind and a more optimistic outlook. You can’t feel anxious or depressed whilst laughing. Dr Madan Kataria, the founder of Laughter Yoga states, ‘‘If laughter cannot solve your problems, it will definitely DISSOLVE your problems; so that you can think clearly what to do about them.’’
Laughter yoga can respectfully help people to learn the valuable skill of being able to laugh at themselves and the things that upset them but that they can’t control. Michael J Fox, a famous actor living with Parkinson’s, states in an interview ‘‘It’s not pretty when it gets bad. I’ve learned to throw vanity out the window.’’ His book Always Looking Up, emphasises the importance of remaining optimistic. This excerpt describes what he experiences when brushing his teeth:
‘‘Grasping the toothpaste is nothing compared to the effort it takes to coordinate the two-handed task of wrangling the toothbrush and strangling out a line of paste onto the bristles. By now, my right hand has started up again, rotating at the wrist in a circular motion, perfect for what I’m about to do. My left hand guides my right hand up to my mouth, and once the back of the Oral-B touches the inside of my upper lip, I let go. It’s like releasing the tension on a slingshot and compares favourably to the most powerful state-of-the-art electric toothbrush on the market.’’
Being able to laugh at oneself is empowering because it helps to dissolve feelings of frustration, embarrassment, insecurity and fear.Laughing at ‘things that upset you, but that you can’t control’, releases unpleasant feelings from the body.
Laughter makes people feel good, even if they are unable to show it. People with Parkinson’s may find it difficult to control their facial muscles so that they show what the heart and mind want them to. Laughter can help people to feel good inside even though they may not be able to externally communicate these feelings to others non-verbally.
Finally, laughter yoga is a gentle aerobic exercise program that can be done in chairs. It strengthens the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, increases blood and lymph circulation and effectively works the heart and lungs.
Gita Fendelman, a Laughter Yoga Teacher from the USA, lives with Parkinson’s. She has found laughter yoga to be highly beneficial to her quality of life. She states, ‘‘Laughter yoga is what I like to call my inner pharmacy. It keeps my mood elevated. I laugh at almost everything. I laugh at things that used to bother me… If it doesn’t cure Parkinson’s, then at least I’m laughing.’’
Living with Parkinson’s has challenges. A therapeutic approach to laughter, such as laughter yoga, is a great form of complementary therapy. It can help people to feel more positive and optimistic which stops the cycle of negative thinking and exacerbated physical symptoms. Choosing to laugh reduces stress, elevates mood, boosts optimism, reduces pain and feels great.
In this next article, I share information about the outcomes of the laughter session from the participants’ point of view as well as some unexpected benefits that came up that I hadn’t originally contemplated.
Further information about Parkinson’s is available through the following organizations: