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The last thing most survivors of trauma feel like doing is breaking out into uproarious laughter. Living through trauma, like domestic violence, may bring with it a fleeting sense of euphoria and relief, but more negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety, may soon follow. A survivor might feel like he or she can’t remember how to laugh at life anymore.
Luckily, our brains are hard-wired to laugh, says professional life coach Michele Rosenthal, author of Your Life After Trauma. “While the idea of laughing after trauma may at first seem inconceivable, the brain has a system dedicated to this. The goal is offering it ways to reactivate that system over time.”
She should know—at just 13, Rosenthal survived a horrific experience. An abnormal reaction to an antibiotic left her with severe, full-body burns. When she thought she was going to die, she says she remembers her mother’s sense of humor helping bring her back to life. “I learned how life-affirming and powerful humor can be, even in our most traumatic moments, and how the experience of laughter can transition us into healing.”
Despite pulling through, Rosenthal endured nearly 25 years of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something domestic violence survivors commonly suffer from as well. “PTSD results from an uninterrupted survival response; the brain and body get stuck in survival mode,” says Rosenthal. PTSD can be spotted by symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, mood swings and hypervigilance.
Luckily, our brains can be retrained to stop panicking and start relaxing. This is where laughter comes into play: The physical act of letting out a good guffaw or giggle can actually have a chemical reaction. “Laughter causes the brain to increase mood-elevating endorphins while decreasing stress hormones,” Rosenthal says. Laughter can also relax the entire body, relieving tension in your muscles for up to 45 minutes. It also gives your immune system a boost, increasing infection-fighting antibodies.
On top of that, laughter can also help you build self-confidence. “Learning to laugh at oneself and events in the outside world creates an atmosphere of flexibility and reduces self-criticism and judgment, all of which promotes creative problem-solving and risk-taking.”
So, how can survivors start to find their sense of humor again after trauma? Here are a couple of ways to get a laugh fix:
- Grab tickets to a nearby comedy club or watch a favorite comedian’s stand up routine on Netflix or Comedy Central.
- Make a date with a good friend and vow to nix the negativity. Talk about things that make you feel good and, of course, laugh.
- Invite friends over for a game night — Apples to Apples is a good one to bring on the laughs.
- Rent that new comedy flick or, possibly better yet, return to the classics. Not sure where to start? Try Airplane, Caddyshack or Dumb and Dumber (listed among Rolling Stone’s 25 Funniest Movies of All Time).
- A crazy, cuddly ball of fur can help bring back your laughs again. Consider adopting a pet or, if that seems too much to take on, volunteer at your local animal shelter playing with the cats or walking the dogs.
- You can always turn to a video of a baby laughing hysterically at paper.
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