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COMMENTARY: Laughter may not always be the best medicine, but right now it’s my saving grace

Managing anxiety during the spread of coronavirus
Clinical counsellor Dr. Shahar Rabi talks about calming ways to ride out the distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of Friday, COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has infected more than 240,000 people worldwide and killed over 10,000. Our country is taking strong measures to contain the virus, and the situation changes not daily but hourly.

All of us have been asked to do our part. Our front-line heroes are working around the clock to care for us, putting themselves at great risk in the process, while my task is a much simpler one — to stay home and help #flattenthecurve.

But as the days go on, I feel more anxious. As the global tallies rise, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. For many, anxieties are running high in these unprecedented times — my saving grace in the new world order of this virus has been humour.

One of my father’s favourite sayings is “you can laugh or you can cry,” and I’ve been doing my best to do more of the former as I navigate our new normal for the unforeseeable future. Make no mistake: I do not think this is something to take lightly, not by any means. I understand the severity of this virus, especially for our most vulnerable, including my own diabetic, elderly father.

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That said, I see the value that laughter and humour play as a coping mechanism and as a way of showing resiliency and agency. Laughter creates a sense of community in times of uncertainty, and I have personally felt its positive effects this first week at home.

READ MORE: Toilet paper panic — Fear, fights and memes spreading faster than coronavirus

As I’ve watched this pandemic unfold across the globe, checking in with my family and friends living near and far — from the U.S. to the U.K., India and Australia — the common thread is the reliance on humour to ease some of the tension. I’ve even been sent the same joke in different chat groups, just with a few tweaks or sometimes language changed to fit the cultural context.

In South Africa, humour and satire are used so often to comment on current affairs that the phenomenon has been dubbed “pavement radio” by historian and human rights activist Stephen Ellis. COVID-19 has proven no different — South Africans took to social media almost immediately after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed with a series of jokes and memes, ranging from political to inspiring in tone and nature.

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From the barrage of toilet-paper-hoarding memes to the struggles of working from home with our children (and trying to maintain some sort of schedule with said children), handwashing 101, grooming nightmares and more, the commentary shared on social media has helped lighten the mood and provided a sense of community.

A COVID-19 meme circulating on social media.
A COVID-19 meme circulating on social media.

There is an underlying meaning in the humour.

Some may scoff, but it’s important to take popular culture seriously. Understanding how people use humour to alleviate their anxieties can help those in charge address and respond to those fears. This week, our political leaders have repeatedly reassured us that there is no shortage of TP and other household supplies, and now some of our retailers have also placed limits on these products. Our social discourse has played a role in that.

READ MORE: People hoard essentials as coronavirus fears rise, but panic buying isn’t necessary — experts

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The unfiltered, no-holds-barred discussions in my friend chat groups reached new levels — and a new range of emojis — this week as we opened up candidly on everything from our health concerns to economic uncertainties, with a healthy dose of humour sprinkled into the conversation to alleviate one another’s stresses.

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There has also been a change in how I am spending time with my children. We are usually always in a rush — rushing to school, ballet, basketball, birthday parties — this week we weren’t in a rush to go anywhere. However, slowing down the pace has meant the kids are leaning a lot more on us parents for entertainment.

How to talk to your kids about COVID-19
How to talk to your kids about COVID-19

Having to take several breaks in between work to entertain the kids, we found ourselves getting more creative and playful — and laughing more, too. From several baking sessions (where there is batter, there is fun) to tea parties with fancy bears to my daughter giving me a makeover “so I look extra nice on the radio,” those moments of laughter were pure joy. Believe me, there were many more moments of crying, fighting and frustration — but those times in between kept me grounded and focused on the bigger picture.

MORE: Costumed ‘T. Rex’ caught breaching coronavirus quarantine in Spain

Oddly enough, keeping the mood light has helped me stay focused and alert on the enormity of the evolving situation. It has reminded me to check in on my neighbours and show them kindness. And that kindness has been reciprocated.

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My wise and wonderful father is a yoga teacher (and semi-retired real estate agent) who constantly reminds me of the healing powers of yoga, including laughter as part of that practice. Laughter yoga, or hasyayoga, is a modern exercise involving prolonged voluntary laughter. This type of yoga is based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides similar physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. Both ancient philosophy and modern science recognize laughter is strong medicine. It draws people together in ways that trigger healthy physical and emotional changes in the body. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh.

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Now more than ever, in these unprecedented times, we can benefit greatly from laughter. A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after. Laughter boosts the immune system. It decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease. Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.

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I’ve also been doing some stress eating with all that baking, and while laughter certainly can’t replace going to our closed gyms, it does burn calories — one study found that laughing for 10 to 15 minutes a day can burn approximately 40 calories — which could be enough to lose three or four pounds over the course of a year.

READ MORE: Coronavirus cabin fever? Keeping mental health a priority during self-isolation

 

All jokes aside, humour has been a great reminder that physical distancing is not the same as social distancing. In sharing our unique and collective fears, anxieties and challenges in humourous ways, we are able to ease some of those tensions and show no matter how surreal this may all seem, we’re in this together.

 

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.