Patients learn to laugh their way to better health at Fallston General Lighten up, Doctor, humor heals, too

February 17, 1993|By Dianne Bates | Dianne Bates,Contributing Writer

If you're stressed out, full of aches and pains, and visits to the doctor aren't helping as much as you'd like, laughter may be the answer to your problems.

That was the message for 30 people who recently attended a free health education program, "Laughing Your Way To Better Health," at Fallston General Hospital.

Elena A. Skittle, director of rehabilitative services, and Deborah B. Craig, occupational therapy assistant, used jokes and visuals to inform the group of patients and health care professionals about the positive benefits of laughter.

"Laughter takes away your pain, even for a few moments," said Ms. Skittle. "Studies have shown that laughter has beneficial effects on cardiovascular, respiratory and muscular systems. Twenty seconds of laughter equals three minutes on a rowing machine," she said of the physical benefits of humor.

Three years ago, Ms. Skittle used humor in her work with cancer and acquired immune deficiency syndrome patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She noted that laughing together helped patients and family members cope with the terminal illness.

She and Mrs. Craig keep the mood light at Fallston General by telling jokes, employing pranks and by playing games with patients.

"Laughing eases the tension in the hospital room, promotes a positive attitude and releases built-up tensions," declared Ms. Skittle. As a result, she said that communication between patients and family members is improved during hospital visits.

Ms. Skittle and Mrs. Craig admitted that it is often difficult for adults to relax. Children laugh about 400 times a day; adults only 12, she said. Adults are more inhibited and afraid to appear foolish. Also, adults are in environments -- for examples, funeral homes and hospitals -- where laughter is not easily accepted.

She would like to change this pattern of behavior among adults and especially among health care providers.

"Some doctors still believe that [absolute] decorum is necessary in a hospital setting," she said. "They need to lighten up a little more."

As part of their presentation, Ms. Skittle and Mrs. Craig demonstrated how easily humor could be encouraged among strangers by asking the program participants to wear among other items fake noses and zany hats. Participants were also asked to share funny family incidents and anecdotes. Within minutes everyone was laughing.

Injecting humor into the hospital environment is taken seriously at Fallston General. Hospital administrators have been supportive of the efforts of Ms. Skittle and Mrs. Craig. The two women have been asked to include their humor therapy in the hospital's health education program, a series of free lectures and presentations.

Humor in healing is not a new concept. In Proverbs 17:22, King Solomon I said: "A merry heart doeth good like medicine."

Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud believed that mirth was a highly useful way of counteracting nervous tension and that humor could be used as effective therapy.

And in a 1976 article, Norman Cousins author and then editorial chairman of Saturday Review, attributed much of his recovery from a disabling disease to humor therapy. That article in the New England Journal of Medicine drew international attention to laughter's healing properties.

Ms. Skittle and Mrs. Craig include TV, books, movies, comedy clubs and comic strips among the sources of humor.

Then, there is the matter of practical jokes.

"I just came from my office and someone had covered my desk with baby powder, " said Mrs. Craig. "I couldn't stop laughing."

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