Laughter may not be the most scientific counter to ailments, but a UKZN academic recently proved that “Laughter is the best medicine” through her research and a series of Community Outreach Projects. Dr. Gita Suraj-Narayan, senior lecturer at the School of Social Work and Community Development, and also a Certified Laughter Yoga teacher was inspired to carry out research exploring the bio psycho-social impact of laughter therapy on stroke patients and to empower rural communities using Laughter Yoga with cognitive restructuring as an alternate form of therapy.
The study, which commenced in September 2008 comprised 120 laughter therapy sessions using various laughter techniques, Pranayama and cognitive restructuring, conducted on stroke patients between the ages of 40 to 90 years, in the Verulam Frail Care Community. Initially, some of the patients viewed laughter therapy with skepticism. However, by their fourth session, they were more receptive to this form of therapy, said Dr. Suraj-Narayan.
Significant findings of the study included:
A reduction in post-stroke depression, resulting from direct damage to emotional centers in the brain, compounded by frustration and difficulty adapting to new limitations. These included anxiety, panic attacks, flat effect (failure to express emotions) and apathy, often characterized by lethargy, irritability, sleep disturbances, lowered self esteem and withdrawal, and a reduction in stroke-related pain.
Enhanced mobility and the ability to walk without walking aids.
Endorphins released as a result of laughter helped in reducing the intensity of pain.
In some cases laughter therapy helped patients recover from cognitive deficits, resulting from stroke, including perceptual disorders, speech problems, and problems with attention and memory.
Improved communication and relations between the patient and significant others.
“Stroke patients viewed laughter therapy as a safe medium to overcome their problems. They developed a zeal and enthusiasm to do things for themselves. For older patients, it had given them inner joy, and offered them a renewed sense of purpose to live.
In another study, Dr. Suraj-Narayan also conducted Laughter Yoga, combined with cognitive restructuring, with patients in Phoenix, suffering from stress, diabetes, asthma, depression and high blood pressure.
“After exposure to laughter therapy over a four-month period, I found a reduction in stress levels, depression, diabetes and blood pressure, among some of the participants. Because Laughter improves the lung capacity and oxygen levels in the blood, some of the participants reported a reduced frequency of asthmatic attacks and in the use of nebulizers,” said Dr. Suraj-Narayan.
The Laughter Exercises conducted stimulated heart and blood circulation, equivalent to any other standard aerobic exercise. According to Dr. Suraj-Narayan a Belly Laugh is equivalent to “Internal Jogging.” Laughter also provides good cardiac conditioning, especially for those who are unable to perform physical exercises.
“Laughter therapy may be used as a supplementary treatment to patients who are already on medication for their ailments. It should not be used as a substitute for medication,” said Dr. Suraj-Narayan. She plans to develop an integrated model of this therapy, incorporating individual, group and community development which can be used within the School of Social Work and Community Development, and other related disciplines.
She also discovered that laughter is an excellent medium to minimize the negative impacts of contemporary issues facing rural and urban communities. She has conducted several Community Outreach Projects using laughter therapy, aimed at breaking down the barriers of social isolation, discrimination, oppression and concomitant depression, as well as to expose people to a light-hearted but effective way of enhancing their sense of well-being and reducing stress and burnout.