Redefining Addiction and Recovery Through Laughter Yoga

Can specific laughter exercises help reframe behavior and thought patterns?

Posted Oct 29, 2019

Ever wonder why we react to the same things over and over again in the exact same way?

Since birth, our eyes, ears, and brain have been influenced to create movement patterns that our central nervous system deemed efficient. In time, these movement patterns came to dictate our behavior, which is why we find ourselves reacting to the same situations in the the exact same way day after day.

It’s also why, at some point in your life someone probably said these words to you, “You sound like a broken record” or in this case “You act like a broken record.”

Sometimes I feel like my brain is a 1950’s tabletop diner jukebox. It’s like every situation I encounter is encoded with a number, a letter, and a song. Stick me in front of a predicament and my central nervous system makes a choice as if on auto-pilot. The needle inside my inner jukebox drops onto a familiar groove and a song that I’ve heard many times before begins to play. Thus, the soundtrack to our lives.

If you’ve been following my blog through the years then you know this has been especially true in terms of my romantic life. The names change, but it’s essentially the same relationship.

“I was married to four men named Ralph,” a friend of a friend once told me. “All abusive alcoholics.”

Freud refers to this as repetition compulsion, a psychological phenomenon in which someone repeats an event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again and again.

 Josh Coleman/Unsplash
As a memoirist, I’ve often chosen a lens of humor to filter my experiences, but I did so because it was far less painful to make a joke at my expense than to face the painful reality. I had no idea how to get off the merry-go-round.
Source: Josh Coleman/Unsplash

It’s reminiscent of Bill Murray in his portrayal of Phil the Weatherman in the movie “Groundhog Day,” where he relives the same day over and over again throughout the film.

Most of us delude ourselves into thinking that if we can figure out what’s causing our behavior we can change it. I know I did. I thought my behavioral patterns were due to bad karma, rotten luck and sometimes even punishment by a vengeful God. And so, I decided if I acted with more integrity, was nicer to my family or prayed harder, things would get better.

But, awareness alone does little to help us when we’re trying to change the way we react to situations. I’m proof of that. If it did, I would’ve abandoned old relationship patterns after my last book was published. I mean, I spent eight years writing about and dissecting my relationships under a magnifying glass and I still reverted to old habits.

Awareness is a carrot on a stick attached to a treadmill. It allows you to talk a big talk about change (or in my case, write a big story about change) without ever changing.

It wasn’t until I found my way to Al-anon (a mutual support program for people whose lives have been affected by someone else's drinking) where I glimpsed just how seriously my decision-making abilities had been shaped by generations of addiction did change occur.

Much of the change I experienced came as a result of one of the hardest things I’d ever done and one of the easiest things I’ve ever tried - adopting a daily mediation practice (which the program advocates). Little by little, over the course of the next two years, a lifetime of frustrating and painful auto-pilot reactions began to vanish. My repetition compulsion was soon replaced with something new. Serenity.

Shortly after my transformation I discovered Laughter Yoga, became a certified laughter yoga leader and embracing a concept known in the program as service work (living a life where the focus is less on satisfying yourself and more on serving others), I began leading weekly laughter yoga sessions at an addiction and substance abuse treatment center.

It was here, as I began to work closely with participants who had relapsed multiple times, that I began to question what I’d always known to be true about addiction.

 Sara Rolin/Unsplash
Revisiting the “broken record” metaphor, I wondered if it was possible to cut a new groove in an old record so the needle would follow a new path.
Source: Sara Rolin/Unsplash

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, alcoholism is considered to be a progressive and chronic brain disease which requires ongoing and often indefinite treatment. Growing up with a father who suffers from alcoholism and knowing what I know about addiction it’s hard to disagree. I always knew he’d never be cured with a pill, a vaccine or a 12-Step meeting. As they say in the rooms of Alcoholic’s Anonymous,“Once a pickle, never a cucumber."

Yet, as I reflected on my own personal transformation - taking behaviors that were forged through years of repetition and genetics and changing them - I challenged myself to move beyond everything I’d known to be true about addiction. Might it be possible to teach an old dog new tricks?

From what I’d read about the brain and “neuroplasticity,” the latest studies led me to believe it was possible.

Neuroplasticity (a term first used in 1948 by Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski) is the brain’s ability to change in response to events (both internal and external). The most exciting aspect of neuroplasticity is that it exists throughout our lives which debunks the old dog myth.

As I began to solicit feedback from participants in the treatment center, I began to wonder if specific laughter yoga exercises  - primarily Brain Gym® Activities and Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises - could be used, much like traditional meditation, to efficiently interrupt the reward, motivation, learning, judgment and memory patterns to rewire regions of the brain responsible for compulsive behavior.

And so, I set out six months ago to assess what might be possible.

Personal Disclaimer

I’m not scientist and don’t pretend to be. However, someone once described me as a jock trapped in an artist’s life with a scientist’s brain and it sort of stuck. It describes my recent exploration of laughter yoga and addiction perfectly. Perhaps, finding consistency where none seems to exist and yearning for an outcome that can me measured and replicated is a result of growing up with addiction. Other times I think my search for certainty is about going back into my past and helping those in my family feel less hurt by the cunning, powerful and baffling disease of addiction.

Although this isn’t the first informal study I’ve conducted, it is the first one I’ve written about. In the coming months, I’ll be writing about more of them. I’m starting with this one because I hope it will act as conversation starter and lead me to others in the recovery field who can help me conduct a more official and legitimate study. Ultimately, I’d like to do an approved study to see if relapse can be reduced using some of the methods I’ve outlined in this post.

My First Glimpse at Brain Gym®

I first became familiar with Paul and Gail Dennison’s Brain Gym® Program in the early 90’s while working on my Master’s Degree in Education. In my early twenties, I felt traditional teaching strategies were failing us and became passionate about alternative learning methods. I concentrated my studies on Waldorf Education, Howard Garner’s Multiple Intelligences and eventually received certification in the Montessori Method of Education.

At the time, I was student teaching and spending as much time in front of a classroom filled with third graders as I was hiding out in a bathroom stall crying, wondering what I was doing with my life and feeling like a complete failure because I couldn’t reach my students.

When I first read about the Dennison’s work it was still being referred to as "educational kinesthesiology” and though the underlying ideas were considered more pseudoscience than neuroscience, it made the techniques all the more attractive to me.

I spent a weekend reading about their methods and watching VHS tapes and without any formal training I introduced the set of physical exercises (meant to improve children's ability to learn) to my third grade class and was amazed with the results. For the first time, I found myself having fun with my students.

The exercises, which entail a series of simple movements that coax the two hemispheres of the brain into working together, feel more like play than work. For instance, marching in place while you touch your right knee with your left elbow and your left knee with your right elbow (also, called the Cross Crawl).

Sprinkling various Brain Gym activities into my curriculum throughout the day changed my life as a teacher and my students responded in favor. At the end of the first week, I felt like a rockstar. Even months later, as my students became more accustomed to the exercises, their attention spans increased and they continued to crave them.

After graduating, I began working as a Developmental Therapist where I continued to utilize the Brain Gym® exercises. I found notable and consistent improvements in communication and coordination skills when working with children ages birth to five with developmental delays, including those with autism.

My First Glimpse at Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises

In early 2019, I was invited to Bangalore, India to participate in a five-day training with Dr. Madan Kataria, the founder and originator of the worldwide Laughter Yoga Movement. While there, he made the announcement that he’d been implementing two new categories of exercises into his sessions with great success.

 Mark Daynes/Unsplash
Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises encourage participants to laugh at situations that typically cause stress and anxiety.
Source: Mark Daynes/Unsplash

The first was Brain Gym® (which he referred to as Smart Brain) and the second was  Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises. He’d been using both in laughter yoga sessions at schools and senior centers and claimed that they were having a positive effect on participants.

Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises encourage participants to laugh at situations that typically cause stress and anxiety. For example, opening a credit card bill, getting fired from a job or being given a life-changing medical diagnosis.

Many of these exercises were already in rotation within the laughter yoga community, but the new classification created a distinct sub-division and with it a more profound intention that was more therapeutic in nature.

Resisting Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises and Brain Gym® Activities

By the time I’d arrived in India, despite never having used Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises or Brain Gym® Activities, I never felt like my laughter yoga sessions were incomplete, less fun or missing anything important or substantial.

So, when Dr. Kataria suggested we begin to utilize the new exercises in our sessions I felt challenged. Mostly, because I found the exercises so difficult to do. How could I lead others in exercises when I was barely able to do them myself?

No matter how many times I attempted to draw a circle and a square with the fingers of both hands simultaneously, I couldn’t do it. These weren’t the simple Cross Crawl movements from years ago. These exercises seemed to require a combination of mathematical skill and motor memory that my brain didn’t posses and out of the dozens I attempted on my first day, I was only able to complete one with any amount of confidence. These new activities didn’t make feel smarter. They made me feel dumb.

 Jiang Xulei/Unsplash
These new activities didn’t make feel smarter. They made me feel dumb.
Source: Jiang Xulei/Unsplash

I found the Value-based Laughter Yoga exercises, no easier, though for a different reason.

Laughing at situations that I’d grown accustomed not to laugh at made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I sort of felt like I was being asked to do something that went against the laws of the universe and every time a new situation was introduced, I sensed hesitation in my movements.

Combining Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises and Brain Gym® Activities

When I returned from India in March, despite misgivings, I introduced these two new types of exercises to the laughter yoga participants at the treatment center.

To create measurable outcomes, I included five Brain Gym® Activities and five Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises in each one hour session for 90 days. I then solicited feedback from each participant at the end of our sessions. During sessions, there were as many as fourteen participants and as few as five. Each session was done seated rather than standing.

When introducing each exercise in these new categories, I explained exactly what I hoped participants would get from them. “Done regularly,” I said, “These exercises have the ability to re-synchronize our central nervous system, energize the brain, help us lead more sensible and virtuous lives and provide us with new ways of reacting to old situations.”

My reason for doing this was based on Dr. Kataria’s mention of neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni’s work with mirror neurons. In a nutshell, imitating the behavior of a person you want to be like is actually a way to have the same character traits. You basically make yourself think that you have a certain character trait, until over time, you do. Using these words to introduce the exercises was an important component.

The Results of Using Value-based Laughter Yoga Exercises and Brain Gym Activities

Within the first 30 days, I was surprised to discover that when participants engaged in Brain Gym® activities, the left brain/right brain activities seemed to effect much more than coordination skills. On a deeper level, they acted much like the Value-based Laughter Yoga exercises.

 Jason Edwards/Unsplash
Used within a laughter yoga session, the Brain Gym® activities mimic situations that raise levels of frustration and anxiety. For this reason, they tend to foster the ideal environment for the laughter contagion to flourish.
Source: Jason Edwards/Unsplash

Used within a laughter yoga session, the Brain Gym® activities mimicked situations that raised levels of frustration. For this reason, they tended to foster the ideal environment for the laughter contagion to flourish. From the onset, I found that contagious laughter occurred 30% more frequently during the Brain Gym® portion of my sessions than during any other time during a laughter yoga session.

Although, simulated laughter has been noted to have the same effect on the body and brain as contagious laughter, I noted a marked difference in how my participants felt after experiencing contagious laughter. On a scale of 1-10, participants noted their levels of joy went up by 25% when laughter was caused by the contagion as opposed to simulated laughter.

By the 45-day mark, based on the feedback I received from participants, I found that both types of exercises acted like a homeopathic remedy, where, as an anecdote, a patient ingests a tiny bit of the disease. The claim is that something that causes the symptoms of a disease in a healthy person will cure similar symptoms in a sick person.

In other words, when we engage in a behavior that is frustrating, respond to it differently by laughing, our central nervous system eventually reframes the way we think about frustration.

At the 60-day mark, I glimpsed a deeper significance to Value-based Laughter Yoga exercises and began to ask myself a few important questions. Was the difficulty in adopting new behaviors for those suffering from addiction due to a participant’s lack of vision or a lack of implementation? Could Value-based exercises help participants develop a personal vision which in turn might aid in the implementation of new behaviors?

Since those who suffer from the disease of addiction tend to react to situations using their sympathetic nervous system (which bypasses reactions based on values) I knew how important it was to re-introduce a set of values to the participants. After all, personal values guide our actions and without them we suffer from internal tension which can trigger destructive habits and degenerative behavior.

For this reason, I interspersed a type of breathing meant to stimulate the vagus nerve between each Value-based Laughter Yoga exercise.  By encouraging participants to take deep, deliberate belly breaths I was able to activate the specific neurons known to detect blood pressure and lower the heart rate. When asked, participants said they felt more relaxed 85% of the time.

With stress levels reduced, it was my hope that linking a relaxation response to a specific set of values would make it easier for participants to adopt new habits.

I created a specific set of ten Value-based Laughter Yoga exercises based on ten different values and introduced the identical exercises to the group each week. They included: Honesty, Acceptance, Altruism, Dependability, Wisdom, Uniqueness, Respect, Consistency, Creativity, and Love.

I chose these specific ten for two reasons. First, I based them on what I found helpful in my own transformation. Secondly, I assumed participants would be drawn only to those values that might help them create a more fully developed and desired self-image. Based on feedback, I found my assumption to be correct. Out of the ten, on average participants deemed only one or two exercises as their favorites.

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Change

Everything considered, I feel this preliminary study is but a start in terms of how laughter yoga can benefit those suffering from the disease of addiction. If anything, I have more questions than answers.

Can these specific exercises, when included in laughter yoga sessions, eventually help participants suffering from addiction reframe their thought patterns, behavior and feelings? Can these exercises also help them process information in a way that will make their lives less stressful and as a result improve the quality of their lives?

I’m not sure. What I do know if this. As I’ve made progress as a participant and a teacher with Brain Gym® Activities and Value-based Laughter Yoga exercises I’ve come to understand more fully how the two types of exercise allow us to grow, develop and embrace change. Ultimately, this helps us to create the future we want to experience.