The healing power of humor.
That's true in physical and emotional healing. This means that humor can play a key role in the therapeutic relationship.
Humor, like love, is difficult to study, but studies suggest that humor and laughter affect brain chemistry. Both have been shown to be effective for reducing pain, lowering blood pressure, and improving immune function. In a recent study, cartoon humor was shown to activate the same area of the brain as cocaine.
Humor can be used with patients in several ways. I often use humor to put a patient at ease. Recently, a seriously depressed patient of mine was told by her physician that her depression classified her as mentally ill. She feared that this label would lead to her son being taken from her. When she reiterated her question to me: "Am I mentally ill?" I made a face, wiggled my fingers at her, and said, "boogety-boogety-boogety!" Then I told her that if anyone would take her son away it would be me because he's a great kid and I really like him. She laughed and was relieved by the levity of my response. I was able to take a serious label like "mentally ill" and put it in perspective through humor.
Sometimes humor works best in the form of exaggeration. A member of a food addiction group with which I was working had achieved much success with weight loss and was soon to be married. But she was complaining about an office-place personality clash. I used exaggeration to point out the positive aspects of her recovery: "Oh, poor me, I've lost 100 pounds; I'm getting married; I have a wonderful home; but my life is being ruined by this person at the office...."
Again, the humor put the situation into perspective and helped the patient realize the relative insignificance of the problem.
Humor can be brought into the therapeutic relationship in several ways. It's fine to have a few "standing jokes" that you use to help break the ice and ease the anxiety of new clients, or to crack a joke in a group setting when a new member is reluctant to join the discussion.
In a group of alcohol-addicted patients, for example, I once told a reluctant participant: "Oh, you don't want to talk today? OK, we'll just send out for some tequila." Once again, laughter has a definite way of breaking the ice.
Humor can be dangerous, too. Cultural and personality differences can lead to misunderstanding about humor, as can using politically incorrect humor. It is important to assess a patient's ability to accept the humor. I recall a time when I made what seemed to be an innocent joke about a certain disease, only to find out my patient's husband had died of that disease. I offered my sincerest apologies.
In most cases, humor is far more healing than hurtful. To make the most of humor in the therapeutic relationship, keep it true to yourself. Humor must be genuine and congruent.
Ask how humor can be helpful to your patient and be sure to use it for your patient's best interest and rather than to satisfy your own ego. And finally, take your work seriously, but take yourself lightly!
BY ARTHUR TROTZKY, PH.D.
DR. TROTZKY, an addiction treatment specialist, has been a senior staff therapist at the Child and Family Clinic of the Kibbutz Movement at Seminar Oranim, Kiryat Tivon, Israel, for 27 years. He is presently the director of Israel Counseling and Treatment Center of the North.