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Can joy help chronic pain?
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I've always been very interested in this connection. It will not surprise you to know, I believe joy, laughter and the brighter side of life can be very healing. I believe life is too important to be taken seriously. There have been many individuals who have suffered and have taken it a step further and written about the importance of the physical act of laughter and its effect on the body.
One of those individuals was Norman Cousins who, some believe, was instrumental in ushering in the holistic health revolution, in particular his book “Anatomy of an Illness,” published 25 years ago. Mr. Cousins, a well-known editor in New York at the time, was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis and was given a very poor prognosis. Since it is a disease that breaks down collagen material which basically holds us together, he could be said to be falling apart. Rapidly becoming incapacitated, he experienced extreme pain on movement and it looked extremely grim for him. The disease was of sudden onset and robbed him of life as he knew it. He was told he had only a few months to live. He, his wife and family, as well as his family physician who was also a close friend, searched for the answers to why he had been attacked, or rather why his body was attacking itself.
At that point in his life, Mr. Cousins made a decision which has affected all of us and the way we think about disease. He refused to believe or accept the prognosis. He had his wife and doctor move him into a hotel suite because he was disturbing the hospital routine. They also decided to give him massive doses of vitamin C via his IV line. It's important to note this was several years before Linus Pauling published his findings on the efficacy of massive doses of vitamin C. Cousins' wife was very knowledgeable about nutrition, had a garden at home and believed very strongly in the quality of the fuel we place into our bodies. She had become appalled by the poor quality of the hospital food, white bread, overcooked vegetables, etc. and had started to bring him food from home.
His doctor was ridiculed by other physicians for the vitamin C and for allowing him to leave the hospital setting. He had nursing care for a segment of that time. The greatest change he wanted to adopt and perhaps prove, was his belief in the healing effect of laughter and joy on the human body. He had a projector brought in (remember this was before the popular use of the video and DVD player). He watched all the old comedy movies, such as those of the Marx Brothers. Allen Funt of Candid Camera fame sent over some reels of his show which Mr. Cousins also watched. The nurses and his wife took turns reading humorous stories to him from books of humor. He also requested lab work to be drawn before and after watching the comedies. They discovered his sedimentation rate actually went down after those extended times of joy. Mr. Cousins wrote, “What was significant about the laughter, I said, was not just the fact that it provides internal exercise for a person flat on his or her back–a form of jogging for the innards–but that it creates a mood in which the other positive emotions can be put to work, too. In short, it helps make it possible for good things to happen.”
Eventually, he got better and was able to return to his life, his job and his family. His critics say he “laughed his way to wellness.” Others claimed he could not have had anklylosing spondylitis. It was much more than that. He believed and tried to prove there is a connection between the mind and positive emotions and the way the body reacts. It wasn't a particularly new idea but he had the prestige and the dedication, as well as enough influential connections to impress the world with his findings and beliefs. Fifteen years after winning against his connective tissue disease, he had a near fatal heart attack and applied many of the same principles to that experience. He combined rest and the principles he had previously found successful and wrote another book called “The Healing Heart.”
Later on in life, in 1978, he went to UCLA where he taught his findings to medical students and physicians. He devoted the rest of his life to the quest for proof that a patient's psychological approach to illness could have an effect on the body. He was particularly interested in the impact of positive emotions and positive attitudes. He appointed a task force of scientists in various fields and his efforts eventually became the UCLA Program in Psychoneuroimmunology which now bears his name, the Cousins Center for NPI.
Albert Schweitzer who suffered a serious illness in middle age once wrote, “There is a fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain.” Dr. Schweitzer was known by his friends for having a wonderful sense of humor. The writer and professor C.S. Lewis said (and I paraphrase) that pain was a wake up call to a deaf world.
You see, my friends, we are in good company. Many have suffered and eventually embraced wellness or at the very least were able to live comfortably with what they were given. If stress can kill, and we all have been told it can, then why cannot the positive emotions heal? Isn't it possible that replacing fear and anxiety with hope and laughter might be therapeutic? It certainly can't hurt and we know fear, anxiety and stress can. I recently read a copy of the Sept./Oct. 2006 Arthritis Today and there was a small paragraph which caught my eye. It seems that researchers in Japan have been studying the effect of laughter on rheumatoid arthritis. Blood levels were measured before and after the patients heard a funny story. They found significant reduction in three types of cytokines (chemicals which affect inflammation) after a round of hearty laughter.
I realize we often don't feel funny. Sometimes we even resent those who try to “cheer us up.” I have come to believe it is not possible to feel better if we feed the sad, negative, dark emotions. If joy does not heal you at least it can go a very long way toward making each day more enjoyable. All we have in this life, really, is time. How we live each day, what we choose to feel and how we express it, these are all in our grasp. The more pleasant emotions of joy, laughter and appreciating beauty will make that time we have so much richer, don't you think? So go out and be silly. Don't be afraid to act up. Act like a child, uninhibited and unafraid to embrace joy and laughter. Okay, now I have to close with a humorous story.
There is an old joke about a group of four avid golfers who golfed together every week. They made a pact that nothing, that is absolutely nothing, would ever interfere with their weekly game. They played during flu epidemics, personal and financial problems. They played during rain, sleet and heat. One day, after many years of playing golf together, they were having a spirited round when tragedy struck. They were approaching the second hole when one of their members, Henry, was struck down with a heart attack. He died. None of them could do anything to help Henry. So what could they do? They had all agreed that nothing would interfere with the game, so--from that moment on they did what they had to do. For the remainder of the day it was hit the ball, drag Henry. Hit the ball, drag Henry. There are so many days I am Henry. So I often get through the day and think of him as I hit the ball and drag Sue. Hit the ball and drag Sue. Life does go on, joyfully if we let it.
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