The Healing Power of Laughter in Mental Health Treatment

laughter therapy

Is laughter “the best medicine” for your mental health?

I once heard a comedian say the least funny thing one can do is explain a joke or analyze why something is funny. That is probably because laughter signals a deep connection that is hard to explain. If you find yourself describing a joke, you are bombing as a comedian or missing the shared experience with a group of like-minded people. Think of all those coming-of-age movies where the protagonist is on the outside – the brunt of the joke while the cool kids laugh at their expense.


According to Scientific American, laughter serves a social function. It shows that we want to connect with others. Evolutionally, laughter signals intentions and a willingness to include someone new to the pack. From a physical health standpoint, a belly laugh can increase oxygen intake and stimulate the heart, lungs, and muscles. For those in recovery from a mental health condition, laughing releases endorphins that make us feel happy and even relieve pain or anxiety.


Laughter “Therapy”

 “Laughter is another tool to rekindle pleasure and reshape depressive pathways by creating a natural high. It signals a lack of inhibition, stigma, or embarrassment. Laughter is the language that communicates joy and delight to others while activating our internal pleasure centers in the brain.” Sanford Behavioral Health Founder Rae Green, JD, LPC, CAADC


There is a reason for the laughter heard in therapy groups at Sanford Behavioral Health and 12-step meetings. According to a 2010 study by scientists Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, laughter results from “benign violation.” In other words, folks laugh when they recognize a norm has been broken, as long as the breach is not too off-putting. Sitting with those who have experienced active addiction, eating disorders, and mental health conditions and sharing a cautionary tale in the safety of recovery can spur shared laughter and, in turn, shared healing.



The Healing Power of Laughter

Laughter in treatment is not designed to ignore problems but to take a step away from anger and anxiety and approach issues in a fresh light. Indeed, the healing power of laughter provides relief for the loved ones of those in recovery as well. Sanford Family Program facilitator Carli Noffsinger, LMSW, CAADC, says, “I love to laugh with the families of our clients. We have to laugh at ourselves as we learn.” Carli intuits that a one-liner will ease the tension or unify those with the common experience of loving someone with a mental health condition.


A Chuckle is Good for Your Mental Health Because:

Laughter Dissipates Anger and Anxiety

For those struggling with chronic substance use disorders, eating disorders, and mental health conditions, laughter can dissipate anxiety and anger. It is hard to be angry while laughing. It is also difficult to be anxious, afraid, or sad while relaxed, and laughter reduces stress response and soothes tension! (All the Rage)


It Lightens the Mood and Aids in Conflict Resolution

One of the reasons a good laugh is effective in our Family Programs is because laughing together puts people at ease. It also opens the door to communication of difficult subjects, deflects anger, and decreases tension.


Laughter Reshapes Our Way of Looking at Things

Anger researchers Deffenbacher and Orwell found that humor represents a different way of looking at things. Highly emotional situations can be tempered, and perspective changed with a well-placed joke.

Times Are Tough

Let’s face it – life in 2023 can be a challenge. As treatment providers, we want to prepare our clients for real life. Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders recreational therapist Raina Bawden, CTRS, says, “Life can be hard in treatment and recovery. As recreational therapists, we are here to help our clients renew or, for the first time, discover a love for life and that silliness we all have inside us. We give them the opportunity to find the positives and get out of the rigid bubble they have themselves in.”


Laughter and Community

Why do we hear laughter in the group rooms at Sanford Behavioral Health? Because laughter breaks the ice. Shared laughter indicates that the clients in the room see the world similarly, at least regarding their recovery. Their shared experience has become an important part of their community and social support. When paired with evidence-based treatment programs, sharing a laugh benefits real-life relationships, positive feelings, and even expressions of love.


after marilyn head shot bio

Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.