Laughing Your Way Through Bipolar Disorder Recovery

Laughter—whether it be genuine or forced—can lift your spirits and help you through your bipolar disorder recovery.



For as long as I can remember, laughter has been an important part of my life. I’ve always loved to laugh and make others do the same. Way back, when I was in third grade, I wrote the following little ditty on the chalkboard the day my teacher, Ms. Chambers, returned to class after having been in a car accident:

Poor Ms. Chambers had a wreck;
The car was demolished, and she hurt her neck.
The ambulance came, the police car too;
Traffic was so heavy that they could hardly get through.

While I can only remember the first verse, I do recall the whole class cracking up. My teacher couldn’t resist laughing either. Since she was feeling a little down, she needed it more than anyone. Even then, I instinctively knew that laughing matters.

In high school and for most of my undergraduate years, I was forever the class clown. But, at the start of my senior year in college, when bipolar disorder took hold, I thought I’d never have anything to laugh about again. Fortunately, I learned I absolutely had to restore laughter in my life to survive. This realization didn’t happen overnight. Years passed before I could recapture a full appreciation of laughter’s power and integrate it into my recovery.

While laughter is no panacea, it’s vital to regaining and maintaining a stable and fulfilling life. It’s truly an amazing medicine. And those of us living with bipolar—along with our loved ones—need a consistent, healthy dose.

In fact, if you could pack laughter into a pill, it would be easy to swallow, it would have an immediate effect, there would be no side effects and the benefits would be tremendous. There’s no prescription, and it’s self-administered. While we don’t know exactly how many medications work, we do understand what happens when you laugh.

I’ve led support groups for years. Someone once asked if I have a goal when I facilitate a meeting. I said that in 90 minutes you cannot solve everyone’s problems, take away all the pain and address every issue. You can make folks laugh! Injecting humor into people’s lives gives them a shot of hope.

Making people laugh puts things in perspective. You take their minds off their illnesses, if only for a brief period. People bond together and feel more comfortable with one another. It’s inspiring to see the transition that takes place in people’s demeanor and attitude when they learn to giggle a little. Adding a little humor makes the group’s mood more likely to be light and uplifting instead of heavy and foreboding. And, people are much more likely to come back for more.

One group attendee once questioned the emphasis I place on laughter. “But mental illness is not a joking matter,” he said. “I agree,” I answered, “but it is a laughing matter.” I explained we were not making light of anyone’s situation. Rather, we were helping lighten their burdens. When people laugh at themselves, they have the power to control bipolar rather than let it control them.

Laughter is powerful, and the history of its health benefits goes back at least to biblical times. In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon wrote, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” In the 1980s, humor as a health benefit gained scientific respectability. Today, we know even more about laughter’s therapeutic benefits, especially meaningful for those of us facing chronic conditions like bipolar. We need laughter’s positive energy and its calming influence.

When you laugh, good hormones increase and stress hormones decrease. The body produces pain-killing endorphins. Laughing also acts as a safety valve to counterbalance tension. It brings balance to the immune system and lowers blood pressure. Laughing 100 times is equivalent to a 10-15 minute workout. In some clinics, laughter even helps reduce the use of antidepressants.

The physiological changes that occur with real laughter also occur when you pretend. Though I’ve dealt with bipolar disorder for years, I still experience deep, dark periods of depression. During those times, I have to force myself to laugh, but it’s still unbelievably effective. So when laughter doesn‘t come naturally, you can fake it ‘til you make it.

Laughter also significantly improves one’s mood, and can help alleviate depression and anxiety. According to a West Chester University study, students using humor to cope were more prone to have a positive frame of mind.

Humor loosens up the mental gears [and] encourages out-of-the-ordinary ways of looking at things,” says humor expert John Morreal, PhD. When we laugh, our creativity is stimulated, we take ourselves less seriously and we’re better equipped to overcome challenges. Laughter also promotes relaxation, relieves tension and banishes boredom. It makes living with bipolar more manageable.

Part of recovery is learning to look back and laugh at situations, even when you failed to see anything funny at the time. Working at a bank one summer, I was manic the same amount of time our ATM was open—24/7! I would hang out with all types of characters in a nightclub at night, then try waiting on customers at the bank during the day. I was constantly getting into trouble.

One time, I drove a repossessed jeep off the bank lot onto the beach (which was illegal!) and got it stuck in the sand. Another time, without getting my roommate’s permission, I purchased a puppy while on a spending spree. That little dog proceeded to shred tons of my friend’s expensive sheet music. My outrageous behavior was taxing and troublesome for everyone around me.

Eventually the bank president called in a psychologist to see me at work. Talk about embarrassing, devastating and demeaning. Fortunately, I’ve since learned so much more about bipolar. Now I can find humor in what happened because my perspective has changed. I no longer blame myself for behavior that was symptomatic and not intentional like everyone thought.

What once brought pain now brings laughter. I mean, a puppy shredding sheet music? Even my old roommate can laugh now.

When I speak at conferences, audience members often say the material was not what they expected. Perhaps what they notice most is the humor. The more people laugh, the more they learn and the more they get engaged. It’s good to hear someone say, “Man, I really needed a good laugh. ”That’s for sure. We all do.

Starting right now, give yourself permission to infuse your life with more laughter. Make a commitment to laugh out loud a minimum of 5–10times every day. If laughing doesn’t come easily, try a few tricks. Watch a funny movie or sitcom. Spend time with someone who makes you laugh. Read jokes or a humorous story. Or bring on the laughter by looking back on an amusing occasion in your past. (Trust me…that really works!)

Laughter must have lasting benefits. Thirty-five years later, that third-grade teacher of mine still asks about me. She’s never forgotten the little kid who wrote a funny poem on the board.

Learning to laugh again has been a profound help to succeeding with bipolar. It can be a driving force in your life, too. Beginning today, let laughter lighten your load on the road to wellness.


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What happens when you laugh

Laughing is a two-part, spontaneous process that involves gestures and sound. When you laugh, 15 facial muscles contract; the major muscle of your upper lip is stimulated. The larynx closes halfway, you breathe irregularly and you may even gasp. In extreme cases, the tear ducts are activated, and your face can become moist and red. Giggles, even loud guffaws, often accompany this bizarre behavior.

This phenomenon happens fast. For example, less than a second after you hear a punch line, electricity sweeps through the brain cortex. As more neural circuits are triggered, the chuckles keep coming. That’s why people often say, “I couldn’t stop laughing.”

Interestingly, laughter only occurs in the human species. No other species is even capable. The laughing hyena makes a laughing sound, but that noise comes when one is attacked, not as a response to something funny.

Printed as “Mind Over Mood: Laughing Matters”, Winter 2008