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Alum uses humor as healing mechanism

August 02, 2013

We’ve all heard the popular saying that laughter is the best medicine. Now, researchers and medical practitioners alike are proving that it can be a powerful addition to recovery.

Arizona State University alumnus David Jacobson is an advocate of using humor as a therapeutic method to assist in the healing process. Through his research, he has found that laughter can affect perceptions, attitudes, judgments and emotions, which directly benefit one’s physical and psychological well-being.

Jacobson, chief of Social Work at the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System*, first toyed with the idea of using humor to heal after he fell ill with rheumatic fever as a 22-year-old. The condition left him with severe arthritis. He had to relearn to walk and become independent.

“I was living with my mother and hobbling around trying to walk. I made it my goal to beat her to the phone the next time it rang. When it finally did, I made a joke in a voice like Igor and it cracked her up. This gave me the chance to get to the phone before her,” he said.

From that point on, Jacobson began researching the uses of humor in therapy and its effect on the body. When he later took up a position at the University of Arizona Medical Center, he was able to focus directly on this research. In fact, he proudly graduated from the Humor Academy offered by the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.  

“There are a lot of different ways to use humor to cope with chronic pain and stress. For example, someone who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often exhibits signs of anger, tension and fear. Joining a support group that uses laughter and joking can possibly relieve these symptoms for some and ease the tension that’s built up,” he said.

According to Jacobson, a patient who uses humor along with other doctor prescribed forms of rehabilitation will experience cognitive changes in their brain. He says that a study by Allan L. Reiss, on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, have shown that neuro-receptors release additional levels of dopamine when a patient engages in hearty laughter. Studies on saliva and tears have also shown that laughter produces Immunoglobulin A, a chemical that boots the immune system.

“People who laugh don’t get sick as much. If you do get sick, you will at least be a happier sick person,” he jokes.

Jacobson will present this material during the Project Humanities fall semester kickoff at 3:30 p.m., Sept. 18, at the Mercado on the Downtown Phoenix campus. The “What doesn’t kill you makes you funnier” lecture will detail the appropriate and inappropriate uses of humor, therapy methods – such as laughter yoga – and an in-depth look at humor in the healthcare system.

“I want people to leave knowing that humor is important because you can learn to change negative thoughts to positive ones. Like in Star Wars, I want the humor force to be with them,” he said.

*Jacobson is an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs. However the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of that Department or of the United States.