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Harnessing the Healing Power of Laughter

Show up for one of the monthly “Easy Breather” sessions at the Oakview Recreation Center in Oak Lawn, Ill., and you’re likely to hear the group before you ever see them. Giggles, guffaws, chortles, cackles, chuckles, hoots and downright belly laughs emanate from the room where 45 or so men and women with chronic lung disease gather with group leader Brenda Celmer, CRT, a pulmonary rehabilitation therapist at Advocate Christ Medical Center.

What could be so funny about lung disease? Nothing, of course, but that hasn’t stopped Celmer from introducing mirth into the lives of her patients. A “certified laughter leader,” the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) member regularly leads the group through laughter sessions aimed at raising their spirits. Interestingly, she’s found it improves their lung health as well.

“The patients who have attended the laughter sessions have responded more positively than I ever imagined they would,” says Celmer, who learned the technique at a laugher leader certification workshop in Toronto, Canada two years ago. “They have told me that they not only love the laughter itself…but the sort of surprise benefits include better air movement in and out of the lungs, good exercise of the diaphragm and the intercostals, and frequently the laughter can be a form of airway clearance.”

Celmer emphasizes she isn’t a standup comic—the laughter-inducing merriment fostered by the sessions is more the slapstick variety, with antics like pretending you have ants in your pants and other visual humor that people just can’t seem to resist. She finds laughter is contagious too. Get one person going, and the rest will follow.

“My patients tell me that they just love the laughter sessions and wish they could have them on a DVD to play at home so they can laugh along with it whenever they need a lift,” says Celmer. “It just really lifts my spirits to hear such comments from people that so often can be depressed and down a good part of the time. I am so happy to be able to bring this bit of joy to their lives.”

The laughter certification Celmer earned in Canada is sponsored by the World Laughter Tour, a group formed by Steve Wilson to bring the healing and healthful effects of laughter to more people. It’s based on a similar movement developed by an Indian physician who introduced the concept into yoga sessions in her country.

“The World Laughter Tour espouses to the belief that laughter can bring about peace and joy, and I wanted to be a part of that,” says Celmer, noting the instruction she received in the workshop taught her the difference between humor and laughter and also provided information on the physiological benefits of laughter. “Once I completed the workshop, I realized that in addition to benefiting the general population, the population of people with chronic lung disease would reap huge benefits as well, and I couldn’t wait to try it with the patients in my rehab program.”

In addition to the laughter sessions, she provides for her pulmonary rehab patients, Celmer has held programs for hospital staff and community groups, with equally good results. Her hospital public relations department has gotten into the act as well by promoting her pulmonary rehab sessions to the local media.

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