Humor for Healing - Can Laughter be a Drug-Free Alternative for Anxiety?

July 22, 2012

A merry heart doeth the heart good. (Proverbs 17:22) 
Humor may be healthful when it's strategically deployed to fight anxiety. 

The therapeutic effects of humor give patients the opportunity to forget about their anxiety and pain, if only for a short period of time and improves the patient's frame of mind and quality of life.

Researchers interested in mind-body medicine have investigated the role of humor in health care. At first blush, it makes sense that a small dose of humor might offer a fast, easy, and drug-free way to relax a tense child or an anxious spouse, or even dampen down one’s own nervousness. But as it turns out, “funny” is a complex idea.

The notion of laughter as an antidote to everyday anxiety has appeal. Laughing is fun. Plus, the notion of an alternative, drug-free medicine that doesn’t require an iota of exercise, acupuncture, or even drinking green tea, is attractive. 

Medical Research on Impact of Humor as a Mind-Body Tool Modern medical science has begun to rediscover the physiological benefits of laughter for patients. A hearty belly laugh doesn't just feel good -  the literature also cites its identifiable medical benefits. Thirteenth-century medical history depicts laughter as being used as an anesthetic for surgical procedures. Five hundred years ago laughter was known as a treatment fro colds and depression. (Lee 1990).

Laughter therapy for Patients with Cancer’s abstract says, "Humor is an important part of life. Care should be taken to ensure that humor persists even during the bleakest times for patients, families and medical personnel. Laughter eases the mind, defuses tension among people, and has positive physiologic effects on patients. Facilitated nursing intervention with humor helps to inject this important facet of life into difficult scenes. One successful approach to introducing humor into a hospital setting is a hall-roving “Laugh Mobile.” Its humorous novelties, books and films help divert the attention of suffering patients to lighter thoughts." 

Why is the jury still out? Perhaps for the need of more research or perhaps because of the outdated notion that a doctor patient relationship needs to be serious. However, there’s a lot of indication that humor is helpful in addressing anxiety and other mental and physical, symptoms. 

A surprising number of recent medical studies have investigated the use of humor as a therapeutic intervention in general. For instance, a 2008 literature review of international peer-reviewed medical journals conducted by health researchers at the University of Edinburgh analyzed 88 different nursing studies, culled from a larger group of over 200 health studies, all citing humor and laughter. They concluded that evidence existed that determined humo
r was good for a patient’s physical and mental health.

Dr. Howard J. Bennett, a pediatrician at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, DC, and author of the book, "The Best of Medical Humor " (Hanley and Belfus, 1991), also reviewed the medical literature pertaining to the physical health benefits of laughter and humor. His 2003 article, titled Humor in Medicine concludes that, “There is support in the literature for the role of humor and laughter in other areas,” including “psychological aspects of patient care” as well as in patient-physician communication, medical education, and as a means of reducing stress in medical professionals.”

Drug-Free, but Not No-Risk, Antidote for Anxiety

Using humor as a tool for reducing stress seems low-risk. After all, a person’s more likely to sustain an injury by taking a strenuous yoga class than by sitting at home chortling at a Marx Brothers movie, as Norman Cousins, author of the popular 1976 book, Anatomy of an Illness, and father of the modern "laughter as therapy movement," did.

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But while the act of laughing seems innocent, of course humor can also be used to mask — or express — a full spectrum of negative emotions, including anger.

A warm, shared laugh can lovingly communicate to friend who's paralyzed by anxiety after receiving a cancer diagnosis that “we’re in this together.” Conversely, humor can convey sarcasm. Shakespearean plays are full of double entendres in which one character makes devastating remarks about another – all cloaked in humor.

The Scottish health researchers, pointed out that while people with ailments from anxiety to heart disease can be profoundly self-critical and self-blaming humor helped lighten their moods. The University of Edinburgh report notes that “use humor by patients is both challenging and revealing, particularly with regard to self-deprecating humor.” In conclusion, their report makes the commonsense recommendation to nurses to exercise caution when using humor with patients, and to look for evidence of its impact on an individual-by-individual basis.

The bottom line is this: Exercising one’s funny bone and having a good laugh may indeed be a good form of alternative, mind-body medicine for treating anxiety. Modern medicine is still learning to pinpoint precisely how and when to deploy humor. Just make sure the joke doesn’t backfire, thereby making the anxiety worse.


Bennett, HJ. "Humor in medicine" South Medical Journal (2003) Dec;96(12)1257-61.

McCreaddie M., Wiggins S. "The purpose and function of humour in health, health care and nursing: a narrative review." J Adv Nurs. (2008) Mar;61(6):584-95.

Read more at Suite101: Can Laughter Be a Drug-Free Alternative Medicine for Anxiety? |

Laughter and humor may be a key to staying healthy, healing faster, and more. Patch Adams and the Gesundheit! Institute pave the way for laughter therapy.

Laughter as medicine – funny concept, isn't it? Though it can be difficult to define what exactly makes humor funny, laughter has long been considered helpful to the healing process. Substantial research indicates that humor and laughter play a role in exercising the internal organs, getting more oxygen to the brain, boosting endorphins, strengthening the immune system, and improving a patient's optimism and outlook about his or her recovery.

We've all heard about the man who cured his deadly illness by watching Marx Brothers videos, and the new interest in "laughter yoga". It turns out there may be some truth to the suggestion that we can heal ourselves with humor… the most natural medicine of all.

Laughter, Internal Exercise and Endorphins

The most obvious benefits of laughter – though by no means the only ones – are the physical results:
Laughter exercises the diaphragm and the cardiovascular system, improving breathing and oxygen flow as well as creating the same levels of endorphins (natural mood-elevating and pain-killing chemicals) as exercise.(1)
Laughter has been shown to improve pain tolerance and to boost the immune system.(2)
Unlike more invasive therapies, laughter therapy is cheap and has no harmful side effects.

Patch Adams – "A Loving Human Interchange"

Hunter 'Patch' Adams, M.D., the subject of the 1998 Robin Williams movie "Patch Adams", based his concept of the Gesundheit! Institute and his Gesundheit Model on the principles that health is more than "normal lab values and clear x-rays"(3) and that a "loving human interchange"(4) is the most important ingredient in medical care and healing.

Humor and laughter play a vital role in Patch Adams' Gesundheit Model. "In our normal, serious world with somber medical environments," he writes, "(even though no research supports being serious and thousands of research papers encourage joy and humor as healing), we saw no contradiction in feeling that a hospital could also be an amusement park."(4) Adams' "amusement park" welcomes natural and allopathic therapies of all kinds, as well as clowns and laughter treatment.

Humor, Laughter, and the Cure for Everything

As Patch Adams says, innumerable studies have established a link between humor, laughter, good mood and recovery from illness.

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The Health Benefits of Laughter
Laughter Really is the Best Medicine

People who don't laugh often or are usually in a bad mood may be what psychologist Eysenck called "the disease-prone personality"(5) – more likely to get sick and less likely to heal than their more optimistic peers or other patients with the same diagnosis. The reverse, of course, is also true.

Mood can have a profound effect on health in the long term. A person's attitude about his disease can affect his chances of healing and the rate at which his health improves.(5)

Like most natural remedies, laughter is not an absolute cure – but it can be helpful in a surprising number of health situations. Where it doesn’t change health issues directly, laughter can still be helpful in decreasing pain and easing tension.

So next time you're home sick with a cold, forget the chicken soup and cough syrup! Take a day off and try for some classic laughter therapy with your favorite comedies.


(1) Lawrence J. Peter and Bill Dana, The Laughter Prescription, 1982.

(2) Heather Elliot, "Humour in the Hospital", The Canadian Nurse, Vol. 9 Iss. 7, Aug. 2002.

(3) Patch Adams, "Love, Humor & Healing", Good Medicine, #39, Fall 1994.

(4) Patch Adams, "Vision for Building a Free Hospital", The Gesundheit! Institute, accessed January 31, 2008.

(5) Gregory J. Boyle and Jeanne M. Joss-Reid, "Relationship of Humour to Health", British Journal of Health Psychology, Feb. 2004.

Read more at Suite101: Healing Power of Laughter: Patch Adams to Marx Brothers: Is Humor the first Natural Medicine? |