Everyone has heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine,” but I’d venture that most people haven’t had a doctor write it on their prescription pad. I’ve spent the last few years navigating the experience of a life with MCAS, an autoimmune disorder affecting the nervous system with severe consequences on quality of life. In its most aggressive stages, those afflicted can become allergic to food, water, and even the medicines that would normally help them get better. When I found myself in that very stage last year, I felt hopeless. What could I possibly do to get better, if my body rejected everything that I tried to swallow? My doctor had a surprising answer: joy.
It turns out, she shared, that many nervous system disorders — including MCAS, anxiety, and even PTSD — are often fed by an overzealous “fight or flight” response in our sympathetic nervous system. Over time, feelings of dread can become stuck, and our bodies can lose the ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which we rely on to return to a calm and restful state. This breakdown produces a whole multitude of unpleasant symptoms. For the times when we can’t mentally overcome these feelings, she explained, the body offers some physical activities we can engage in to make our parasympathetic nervous system regain control. Among them are singing, deep breathing, yawning, gargling, and of course, laughter.
After my appointment, I looked down at my visit summary. Under “prescriptions” was one new recommendation: “Youtube: Babies Laughing. 20 minutes a day.” Skeptical, but determined to get better, I took her advice. I found lots of videos, but my favorite showed a boy sitting at the piano with his father. At first, he hesitantly plunked a few notes, unsure of himself; after his father began to play, though, he giggled boisterously and grinned from ear to ear. The sillier his father played, the harder he continued to laugh. By the end, the boy is happily whacking away at the keys, feeling exuberant and certainly much more confident. Despite the pain I was feeling, I laughed until my sides hurt as I played the video over and over. In those moments of joy, tears running down my face as I tried to catch my breath, I felt my entire body relax. Each time I chuckled, I experienced a brief moment where the heaviness of my situation melted away and everything seemed like it would be alright.
After four weeks of diligently following the doctor’s orders, I began to see results. Slowly, my nervous system was releasing me from my panicked state. My allergic reactions after meals lessened, and I started to get some more priceless minutes of quality sleep. To keep my routine fresh, I added more videos to the mix: comedy routines, belly flop competitions, and cockatoos dancing to Elvis. My mom even reminded me of an old video of a mouse singing a Hot Chocolate love song to a piece of cheese, which was a favorite of mine as a child. After adeptly avoiding the mousetrap to scoop up his delicious meal, the mouse is unceremoniously smacked by the trap-layer’s broom. This deception left baby Noah in stitches, my mother reminded me, and I laughed just as hard twenty years later.
I’m blessed to share that after a lot of hours of laughter and even more hard work, I am in almost complete remission — this time, I hope, for good. I’ve learned a lot along the way. I know how easy it is to get bogged down in the mundane grind of daily life, and the studies show that more and more of us are falling victim to chronic stress. One of the simplest ways to give your immune system a breath of fresh air is to seek experiences where you elevate your emotional state towards feelings of joy.
Even if you don’t have the resources to go to a high-octane rock concert or take a tropical vacation, try to present yourself with small opportunities to be joyful, grateful, peaceful, or just plain silly each day. Listen to a song that moves you, or read your favorite poem. Spend time with friends and recount your most humorous stories together. Try to yawn ten times in a row, or consider some deep breathing until you feel calm. Sing your favorite song in the car as loud as you can. Count your blessings until you cry. Most importantly, laugh often — if you’re moderately concerned about rupturing a major organ, you’re doing it right.