Laughter has been widely shown to benefit physical and mental health across a wide variety of conditions and populations, although very few studies have been conducted with adults with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease (PD) is progressive and physically incapacitating with possible psychological involvement that can negatively affect the quality of life.
Recent research has clarified how common it is for depression and Parkinson’s — an incurable neurological disorder that erodes mobility and thinking skills — to occur at the same time. One study found depressive symptoms in 70 percent of people with Parkinson’s. The issue first gained public attention following the suicide death in 2014 of comedian Robin Williams after his Parkinson’s diagnosis.
While exercise can alleviate sadness and low moods, the worsening symptoms of Parkinson’s can leave one feeling depressed and suicidal. As stated by Jackie Hunt Christensen, a national Parkinson’s advocate from Minneapolis: “As the disease progresses, you’re not able to do things that you used to do, and you’re grieving that.”
In some cases, depression comes years before symptoms of Parkinson’s. In other cases, some people who appear depressed are just showing early signs of Parkinson’s before diagnosis. While depression can complicate Parkinson’s, the flip side is that patients have discovered that exercise and treatment can address both disorders.
The connection to depression is far more complicated than patients growing despondent over a Parkinson’s diagnosis — though doctors said that frequently occurs. Parkinson’s impact on movement and thinking skills comes from the gradual loss of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that starts with the slow degeneration of dopamine-producing cells well before any noticeable motor symptoms appear. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that helps to regulate smooth, coordinated movements and muscle function. Dopamine supports adrenal gland function as well as overall energy production. It is a chemical necessary for communication among brain cells and one that also triggers feelings of happiness. The symptoms of Parkinson’s occur as a result of a dopamine loss. A sort of feel-good neurotransmitter, Dopamine is involved with our sense of enjoyment, our sense of pleasure. It is not hard to imagine that anything that can disrupt those pathways would contribute to depression as well as anxiety.
The connection between an increase in dopamine production brought about by laughter was witnessed first-hand by the staff at Dr. Bob Kemp Hospice in Hamilton, Ontario, and myself. At the beginning of a laughter yoga class, I noticed a gentleman who was slouched over in his wheelchair, barely able to make eye contact and seemingly cognitively unaware. During the course of the session I noticed he began to raise his head ever so slightly and eventually revealed the sweetest half-smile on his face. After the class he mentioned that he could feel “dopamine squirting” in his brain. He could actually feel the chemical fog from the prescription drugs subside. I immediately wrapped my arms around the man and hugged him with joyous laughter tears.
Current PD treatments include psychotherapy and pharmacology. Many adults with PD have side effects with pharmacological treatment. Becoming too aggressive with medication can result in more rapid development of a side effect known as dyskinesia, an involuntary movement of limbs that is often mistakenly associated as a symptom of the disease. Alternative treatment approaches for adults with PD who suffer with psychological symptoms can be employed with varying degrees of success.
The nature of PD makes it difficult to separate biological from psychological processes, therefore treatments that include the whole body, the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and intellectual should be considered. In my humble opinion and from observation in my past six years of experience, laughter, in the form of Laughter Yoga, constitutes an alternative body/mind exercise that may benefit adults with PD and their caregivers. Laughter improves physical and psychological health-related outcomes in many diseases and diverse populations.
Laughter Yoga can reduce stress levels by 75% or more in just one session. Laughter Yoga reduces blood pressure and lifts depression. It also boosts the immune system and increases circulation for better air flow to the body and the brain.
Both depression and Parkinson’s disease are treatable and I think, sometimes on Day One of a diagnosis, people fall into despair, but if they can just get through that, by getting the support they need, they can live on to find out there still is a tomorrow and that it can be a better tomorrow.
Be prepared to have the happiest day of your life, so far!
Love & Laughter blessings,