Can Laughter Therapy Cure My Crippling Anxiety?

I'm sitting down, pretending my voice is coming from my hand, which is up in the air and shaped like a puppet, when I suddenly burst into raucous, out-of-control laughter. From the bottom of the staircase my mother, concerned at the noise, asks whether I've been smoking a joint at 10 in the morning. No, I didn't wake 'n' bake and I am not training to be a ventriloquist. Rather I am in my room, alone, undergoing laughter therapy.
The technique, which comprises laughter exercises, uses humour to relieve pain and stress and is said to improve a person's sense of wellbeing. You may wonder what could possibly be worse than forced fun and you're right, it's a daunting concept. The prospect of someone forcing me to laugh is deeply painful and reminds me of the suffering I've endured on first dates when I've laughed at someone's rubbish jokes just because they were good-looking.
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As someone with crippling anxiety, my cynical self thought I'd give laughter therapy a go. Pre-lockdown, I saw it on my gym's schedule. Gymbox described laughter therapy as a "not-so-serious workout that you happily howl your way to an endorphin high through breathing exercises, movement and a whole load of lol." I signed up out of curiosity but coronavirus thwarted my plans when gyms were ordered to close in March. Instead I decided to try the therapy at home using YouTube. I had woken up moody after sleeping badly, eyes twitching from stress and muscles spasming after consuming way too much caffeine. What better time to test it out?
I select a "Laugh With Me" session with Bianca Spears, a 'laughter leader' and empowerment coach. First, she takes me through a warm-up of practising laughter consisting of a few 'ho ho hos' and 'ha ha has' – an exercise I genuinely laugh through out of sheer embarrassment. It's absurd but I stick with it.
For 20 minutes I sit in front of my computer watching Bianca pull silly faces and guide me through fake laughter and breathing exercises. One minute I'm fake laughing, pretending to turn the ignition in my fake car which I pretend to drive with a big, fat, fake smile on my face; then I'm a rag doll, arms limp as a noodle, throwing my head back and cackling like a witch before turning into a laughing Dalek.
I snort laugh as I pretend to talk through my hand puppet while Bianca leads me up an octave of "eees" which sees me squeal at the top of my lungs like an animal. I reach my hands up in the air, slowly lowering them to my chest before inhaling deeply with my eyes closed.
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One minute I'm fake laughing, pretending to turn the ignition in my fake car which I pretend to drive with a big, fat, fake smile on my face; then I'm a rag doll, arms limp as a noodle, throwing my head back and cackling like a witch.

I feel silly but I'm relatively relaxed. I look around my bedroom. No one is here. I feel utterly mad but my heart rate is steady and my eye is no longer twitching. Could this actually be working?
It is said that laughter is the best medicine and studies do show that it has a positive effect on your mental health. A 2016 study found that laughter therapy improves both your mental health and immune system, decreasing levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and altering dopamine and serotonin activity in the brain. It also releases endorphins, which can help when people are depressed or in an uncomfortable mood.
The benefits of having a good laugh are physical, psychological and can even improve your social relationships. It's also been claimed that our body's response to laughter is similar to the effect of exercise. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that case studies who had watched a comedy had the same levels of stress hormones in their blood as those who had just worked out.

A 2016 study found that laughter therapy improves both your mental health and immune system, decreasing levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and altering dopamine and serotonin activity in the brain.

"Laughter can be a very beneficial tool in helping to ease social anxiety, helping us to distract from any pressure or negative feelings," says Dr Dimitrios Paschos, consultant psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health.
"It immediately increases intake of air, stimulates blood circulation and makes the brain release endorphins, the natural painkillers, and creates a sense of calmness. When we experience anxiety, we have increased levels of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which are counteracted by the endorphins released when we laugh," he adds.
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Dr Paschos continues: "Laughter improves your mood, lessens stress and helps us connect with other people, and it can also be beneficial for the immune system."

Laughter can be a very beneficial tool in helping to ease social anxiety, helping us to distract from any pressure or negative feelings.

Dr Dimitrios PasChos
Once I stopped feeling ridiculous, I realise the therapy session did actually make me feel calmer. The muscles in my face, neck and shoulders relaxed and I felt less on edge. I continued to laugh throughout the day as I reminisced about how silly it all was.
And that's the point. We spend so much of our adulthood demonising immaturity that we risk becoming uptight. It felt nice to be completely childlike for 20 minutes, even if I was on my own. The last few months have been pretty tough: trying to live normally in the middle of a pandemic while trying to stay sane under lockdown has taken its toll on me. Yes, in the grand scheme of things there's not much to really laugh about, but finding the joy in small things – or forcing ourselves to feel those endorphins – is vital for our wellbeing.
For a small section of my day, I forgot about all the bad things that were happening around me and recalibrated my mind to focus on being present, which is something my anxiety never lets me do freely. So if it means having to feel silly for half an hour, sign me up again.

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