Doctor tickles funny bones as a way to ease stress

September 11, 1990|By Janice Perrone | Janice Perrone,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"A woman I'd never seen before came into my office, crying," says Steve Allen Jr., M.D.

"I asked her what was the problem and she sobbed for about three minutes, then told me about a terrible event in her life. Then she started to sob again.

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?" Dr. Allen, a family physician, asked. The patient started to cry again, uncontrollably.

"I just moved to the area and my boyfriend left me." Sobs.

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?"

"My mother has cancer." More sobs.

Some minutes passed. "Is there anything else?"

"I lost my job." Sobs.


"Does your dog hate you, too?"

Not many doctors would be comfortable joking with a patient like this. Some don't consider it professional to joke with patients at all. But Steve Allen Jr., 46, inherited a funny bone from his famous dad, and he uses it, both in his medical practice in Horseheads, N.Y., and as a consultant who teaches juggling for stress management.

"The oft-repeated number is that 70 percent of people coming into a family physician's or internist's office are there because of stress," says Dr. Allen. "Half of them are there almost exclusively for stress-related symptoms, and the other half have chronic problems like arthritis or diabetes, where stress makes the symptoms worse. Humor is one of the most powerful, and certainly the cheapest, ways of relieving stress that we have."

Dr. Allen created his "Stress Management -- Creative Juggling" program almost by accident in 1982, when he agreed to do a program at Cornell University on employee health issues for middle managers. He had planned to talk about cholesterol, hypertension and exercise, but instead he decided to ask his audience what they wanted to hear about.

"Stress," they said loudly and seemingly in unison. "So it became a stress conference," he recalls, "and on the break, I thought it would be fun to teach them how to juggle."

He had just learned to juggle himself.

Practicing in his office between patients, he found juggling had also become his personal method of stress reduction.

The middle managers loved it, too.

"It was wonderfully crazy and fun," says Dr. Allen, who noticed a visible change in the previously dour paper pushers. "I realized that something special had happened by letting ourselves be playful in a work setting, so my speech became the stress and play lecture."

He took his act on the road and now spends about a third of his time teaching Fortune 500 executives, doctors, hospital staffs, even Nobel laureates, how to juggle their stress away.

As for the patient whose life was falling apart: "She started to laugh, and she said, 'You know, it sounds like a soap opera to me, too,'" Dr. Allen recalls. "We laughed and cried together for a few moments. My sense was that it was the eye of the hurricane for her."

He didn't always plan on going into medicine, he says, although he always wanted a profession where he wouldn't compete with his dad. He also wanted a job that was more stable than show business.

Just before he was to start college, he fell ill with aortic stenosis, and at the tender age of 18 needed open heart surgery.

"That started me thinking about medicine," he says, "something to do with being able to understand what had happened to me and what might happen to me.

"Although I had compassionate physicians, nobody talked to me about fear or pain or any of those issues, and I always had this sense that there could be a better way to do that."

Dr. Allen admits that researchers don't really know yet how laughter and play work their magic.

"Some people have speculated that it's in the endorphins in the brain, that it releases the same chemicals that falling in love, chocolate or good sex releases," he says. "Stress does [negatively] affect immunity, that we know, and if you can lessen the stress effect with something like happy thoughts, it should decrease that effect."

Juggling can make people laugh and take their minds off problems for a few minutes. But not every person in every audience has a natural talent for it. So it's also important, Dr. Allen says, to see juggling as a metaphor for setting attainable goals.

"This Zen concept is 3,000 years old, but it sounds like a comedy line," he tells his audiences: "'To be a master archer you shoot an arrow, and whatever it lands on you call the target.'

"I say that at the point that people begin to feel frustrated," he says. "Juggling is for smiling, so if they've smiled I remind them they've already met my goal.

"A lot of internal stress comes from setting unrealistic goals you then fall short of, so a lot of the metaphor has to do with not stressing yourself internally so much. Laughing at yourself is one of the juggling steps. Another is the guilt-free drop, letting it fall ZTC to the floor and just say, 'Well, it's a mistake.'"

But to avoid an hour of mistakes, he has the audience juggle scarves, which are much harder to drop than balls. The brightly colored wisps floating down make a prettier picture, too.

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