Addiction hijacks and changes the pleasure and reward, learning, motivation, and memory centers of the brain. The addict brain is wired to ensure the repetition of activities associated with pleasure or reward. It ultimately seeks the release of ‘happy’ brain chemicals. The effect of such a powerful reward strongly motivates people to use those substances again and again.
Laughter and the brain
Part of recovery involves the slow process of “rewiring” the reward circuitry of the brain, and this is why laughter can be of great help. It has been shown to boost endorphin production and helps those suffering from addiction to feel good without resorting to drugs. (Read more.)
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.
“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” says Catherine Cosgrove, addiction expert and director of Sobriety Home, a drug, alcohol and addiction treatment center in Quebec. “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.”
Both cocaine and laughing produce dopamine, in similar ways, in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. A 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. (Mobbs, D., Greicius, M.D., Abdel-Azim, E., Menon, V. & Reiss, A. L. Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers. Neuron, 40, 1041 – 1048, 2003.) In fact, in addition to cocaine and amphetamines, almost every recreational drug has been shown to increase dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens.
“Most addicts desperately need to learn not only how to tolerate distressing feelings, thoughts and situations, but how to soothe themselves when they’re distressed” says Beth Bongar, a Certified Laughter Professional since 2005. “The experience of a therapeutic approach to laughter, alone or in a group, can teach us how to distract or delay, to not sweat the small stuff, to lighten up, to release, to connect, to choose laughter instead of drama, to engage in something pleasurable, to step back, observe, and ‘surf’ the discomfort.”
Using laughter to break the isolation of addiction
Laughter is mainly about relationships. We live in a society that tends to isolate and divide people.
Laughing together can greatly improve cooperation and empathy between people of different cultural backgrounds. It fosters better communication, which leads to a less confrontational approach in tense situations and a change from individual competitiveness to team cooperation. Voluntary simulated laughter in particular is most beneficial for very socially and culturally diverse groups thanks to its universal and inclusive nature, because it means that they can all join in and develop a sense of belonging.
The English comedian John Cleese said, “I’m struck by how laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance, any sense of social hierarchy when you are just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy.”
Using laughter to diffuse anger, vocalize not verbalize
See the following short documentary as another piece in the gigantic mosaic of empirical evidence that have been suggesting for decades that laughter can be used as a valid multi-faceted healing methodology.
Having lost his lifestyle to a chronic illness, Jon’s explosive rage and sleep apnea threw him into a violent, lonely place. Neither drugs nor surgery have worked, but the liberating power of laughter therapy lightens his burden with infectiously funny force, and hope.