Laughter May Be Effective Medicine for These Trying Times

Dr. Peter Viccellio, a professor of emergency medicine at Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island, has seen many Covid-19 patients during his hours in the emergency room. A touch of playfulness and kindly humor, he said, has helped to ease an enormously painful situation for both his patients and members of the overburdened hospital staff.

“Genuine levity can make patients believe that they are not going to meet their doom today” Dr. Viccellio said, but he added that it needs to flow naturally. “If you are empathetic with the person, your humor tends to fit them, it’s not forced. If you are not emotionally connected to them and force a joke it can go very wrong.”

A case in point: “A colleague of mine once said casually to a patient whose medical history he did not know, ‘Don’t worry about it, at least it’s not cancer,’” Dr. Viccellio recalled. “The patient replied, ‘Actually, Doc, it is.’”

Other kinds of joking that are potentially destructive, he said, are the in-group humor that mocks patients or other members of the hospital staff, and the gallows humor that focuses on the darker sides of medicine. And one needs to be careful not to appear to be making light of somebody else’s pain.

Despite these potential pitfalls, some hospitals have initiated formal humor programs, making funny books and videos available and inviting clowns in to interact with their younger patients. Some caregivers are also innovating ways to bring humor into their own practice.

Mary Laskin, a nurse case-manager at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, has been working with her chronic pain patients online, teaching them laughter exercises alongside practices designed to develop other positive mental states like gratitude and forgiveness.

“This pandemic is like a tiger creeping toward us, a huge slow-motion stressor that makes the experience of pain worse. Humor helps my patients relax and release their grip on pain,” she said.

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