“When worry is your illness, let laughter be your cure”
Charlie Chaplin once famously said “A day without laughter is a day wasted”. If I too was world famous and wanted to leave an inspirational quote behind, for the masses to turn into memes and positive posters, I would probably say something like “When worry is your illness, let laughter be your cure”.
I would say something like that because this has been true for me; laughter has saved me many times over. I once believed that laughter was reserved for those moments spent with friends, family events or watching comedy. I have since found that laughter can be so much more. If we choose it, laughing can also be a tool to combat negative thoughts patterns and overwhelming feelings.
Having suffered with generalised anxiety disorder from childhood, I have built up a lifetime of negative thought patterns. By that I mean, because I dealt with my past in a certain way, I continue to face new challenges with the same skill set.
Our brains are like computers; we know only what we are taught. Language, learning to walk and riding a bike are the obvious ones, but our emotional responses are also learnt behaviours. Parents can teach us so much, and our early years are when we are most ‘impressionable’. For example, if a parent responds to a problem with anger, we may learn to respond to life in a similar way.
A traumatic event such as bullying will also leave its mark. Studies have shown that those bullied are at greater risk for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia as adults. Again, this shows that we learn how to feel from what we experience.
Growing up I watched my lovely mother wrestle with depression, she never told us kids she was struggling, but depression is a hard one to hide. If I am honest, I didn’t know what she was experiencing until I too was diagnosed in my early twenties. My wonderful stepfather dealt with life very differently, we always use to joke about his short fuse, but on reflection his anger was making him ill, and I anxious.
I experienced what we call a ‘traumatic event’ in my high school years. An older cousin of my best mate decided he didn’t like our friendship anymore, so I found myself being bullied by the very people I had considered my closest friends. Before this my best friend and I had been inseparable, as best friends normally are. We would walk to and from school together, practically lived at each other’s houses and, if we weren’t with each other, we always had the phone.
Overnight I was suddenly receiving prank calls and abuse in the school corridors from the friendship group I had been playing football with the day before. Although my best mate, who was now obviously relegated to ex-best friend status, actually said nothing bad to me, not a single word was spoken between us for about two years. I later found out he had never really wanted to stop talking to me, but we were young and impressionable back then. There’s that word again impressionable. This is all just a memory now, but back then it was so much more…
Unbeknown to anyone, including my parents, this whole event had led me towards my first experience of feeling suicidal. I can still remember so vividly lying on my bed with a pillow over my head, stomach in knots and feeling I would do anything to stop feeling so awful. I disliked myself for the first time, accepting that I somehow deserved what was happening. I cant imagine ever feeling like this now, but back then it was very real. I was in my early teenage years and I had learnt to feel fearful. If brains really were computers, then my default setting would have been anxiety.
I have learnt that, whilst we can’t change our past influences, we can influence our future self. Therapies like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) do just that. Instead of delving into the past, CBT focuses on how to look at the present differently. Of course, undoing what may be a lifetime of negative behaviours is no easy feat, but it is possible.
CBT worked wonders with me and I would recommend it to anyone, it should be taught in schools. However, I needed something more. Whilst I could break down problems thanks to CBT, I wasn’t always strong enough to think calmly and remember the steps. Sometimes I would wake up with Anxiety for no reason; I found it hard to be mindful in these moments.
I thought I would always just have to manage these days and accept how I felt, but then I stumbled upon something that made a massive change to my wellbeing. The title of this post may have given it away…
It was one of those days when I woke up with anxiety for no reason, so I started the day in a bad way. Certain events at work added to my stress, so by the time I got home, I was ready to initiate meltdown mode. Instead of making a healthy meal, which would help me feel better, I reached for the comfort food and made myself a plate of all things delicious and deadly.
I scurried away to my room with my food, feeling a slight glimmer of happiness when remembering that a new season of my favourite TV show was ready to watch on Netflix. Then the final straw happened…
Whilst balancing drink and food on one arm so I could open my bedroom door with the other I suddenly slipped, throwing all contents of my plate up in the air; I was now wearing my dinner.
My first reaction was step dad…I mean anger. I kicked everything out my way and closed the bedroom door. Okay…SLAMMED! Some pretty offensive language would have been used at this point. This emotion quickly turned to despair (Mum), feeling like the world had it in for me.
I knew what to do next; I am a professional at knowing how to deal with problems. I was going to head for my bed where I could get under my duvet and place a pillow over my head, my safe place to overthink everything.
However, what happened next changed me completely. Just as I was about to rid myself of the dinner-covered clothes, I caught my reflection in the mirror. Standing there looking back at me was a dishevelled person with red eyes and bits of food in his hair. I couldn’t help but laugh, I looked ridiculous! This was a new type of laughter that I hadn’t experience before; I was completely alone and laughing at myself. My worries disappeared in an instant, quicker than with any mindfulness technique I had learnt previously…although I guess laughing at the present moment is pretty mindful.
I had unlocked something wonderful that day, I had learnt the real power of laughter. Not wanting to brush this one experience off as a fluke, I decided to trial laughter in other situations. When I next woke feeling anxious for no reason I decided to laugh about it. Admittedly it was a pretty weak laugh at first but, as my laughter grew, my anxiety dissolved. Laughter seemed to be taking the sting away from those situations that once felt overwhelming.
Interestingly, a recent study showed that people who engage in joyful laughter produce brain wave frequencies similar to that of a true state of meditation. You can read more about that here.
I have various methods for keeping my wellbeing tiptop; healthy eating and exercise are a big part of that. But now, whenever a problem arises and I feel myself going into default mode, I try to remind myself that I have upgraded, I remind myself to laugh.
“Your body cannot heal without play. Your mind cannot heal without laughter. Your soul cannot heal without joy.”