I don’t suppose that the poet William Wordsworth had the holiday season in mind when he wrote these famous words:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
After all, he was writing in the nineteenth century, long before the commercialization of Christmas and other holidays. But like good poets often do, he had a touch of the prophet, and anticipated the ways in which an increasingly busy world would occupy our attention, absorb us in material concerns and drain our emotional energy. He foresaw that the changes that were coming would darken our world and our spirits.
He wasn’t the only one to do so, and he was hardly the first. For thousands of years before him, human beings realized that working to live could turn into living to work; and that when all we come to care about is money and stuff, inner and outer darkness together can really lay us low. So they came up with antidotes to both.
The two great remedies they developed are also about as simple as they come: light and laughter. The healers of the ancient world looked straight at things and prescribed accordingly. From the Bushmen of the Kalahari to the Yogis of India and the sages of ancient China, they perceived that often when we get sick it’s because we got stuck. If you get stuck, the thing to do is to move. Shake things up. Get energy moving again. And if there’s darkness in the sky, because winter is upon us, and there’s darkness in our hearts, because we’ve paid too much attention to small matters? Wake up some light.
The Healing Power of Light
The wise men and women of the ancient world realized that there was a close connection between visible, natural light and our wellbeing. They saw that if they went too long without seeing the sun, they suffered, becoming sad and depressed. So they created rituals and holidays that turned the tables by celebrating light: holidays like Chanukah, Christmas, and the festivals of light that mark the Winter Solstice, to name a few.
Now, of course, we know from scientific research that we are biologically hard-wired for light. Light is the most important cue for the circadian rhythms of the human body that control the schedule of sleeping and waking. When these are disrupted, our sleep is disturbed and its quality lessened; and the value of our waking consciousness is similarly affected.
And while this is true of everyone, it is especially so for those in recovery. As Alisa, a blogger for smartrecovery.org notes,
According to a study in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, the incidence of insomnia is five times higher in early recovery than in the general population. Insomnia is not the only sleep disorder associated with addiction; it contributes to the development of circadian rhythm disorders, parasomnias (unwanted experiences when falling asleep, sleeping or waking up) and sleep apnea.
And she points out that the effect of this is a two-edged sword:
The relationship between sleep and addiction goes both ways: while the mechanisms of addiction and withdrawal cause sleep disorders, the resulting sleep deprivation can inhibit the recovery process. The consequences of sleep deprivation include low mood, impulsivity, and poor emotional regulation which increase the likelihood of relapse.
As it turns out, the right use of light is one of the keys to healing these conditions. Simple remedies, such as basking in natural sunlight first thing in the morning, and turning down the lights in the evening to signal to the body that it’s time to sleep, can help. And the blue light from our electronic devices? That particular frequency blocks the normal release of melatonin, an important sleep hormone. So turn your devices off, put them on night mode, or cover them with a cloth, so the light doesn’t disturb your sleep even if the boss does.
These are remedies anyone can apply. But there are also light-based healing methods that are more sophisticated, some of which may prove to be on the front wave of future medicine.
One of these I’ve written about here before—the light box, and its use in treating Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. A light box contains fluorescent bulbs that generate about the same amount of light as 10 ordinary bulbs, in shades of white or blue. The patient sits near the box and engages in simple activity such as reading, sewing, eating or meditating while the light is generated, without looking directly at it. Researchers think it helps to regulate the natural rhythms of the brain that modern civilization has cut us off from. The light box helps to restore that balance, combatting depression, improving mood, and increasing serenity—all useful for those in recovery.
It’s worth mentioning that there are some people who should not use light box therapy. Some who suffer from bipolar disorder have had episodes of mania when trying the therapy, apparently brought on by the stimulation of the intense light.
But there are other even more powerful and promising light-based therapies coming. Consider this provocative headline from medicalnewstoday.com: “Laser Lights Could Be the Future of Addiction Therapy.” The article reveals that researchers at the UC San Francisco have tested targeted lasers on rats as a means of eliminating addictive behaviors in them. Exposing the pre-limbic regions of the brain in rats that were addicted to cocaine to laser light resulted in a significant reduction in these behaviors.
The pre-limbic region in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, in humans and in rats, is the area responsible for decision-making and how readily and easily one makes changes. Addiction to cocaine affects this area and reduces the capacity to decide and change.
The researchers used a relatively new science called optogenetics—a technique for using light to control genetically altered cell tissue. New genetic code is introduced to the cells that make light-sensitive proteins called rhodopsins in the prefrontal cortexes of the rats; by activating these cells with lasers, the researchers could turn the cells on and off. Once the cells were turned on, addictive behaviors were significantly reduced. And studies conducted with mice have shown equal promise in applying these therapies to reducing addictive behaviors connected to alcohol. Theorists hope these methods will be successful in treating addiction, depression and schizophrenia. More research is needed, but results so far suggest that light may be as powerful in healing as the ancients believed.
Healing Through Humor and Laughter
But light isn’t the only staple of the holidays that turns out to have application to our healing. It looks like getting Scrooge to laugh in Charles Dickens’s famous short story, “A Christmas Carol,” is right on the money. Humor and laughter are proving to be powerful natural methods of healing.
Maybe the test case that most put the power of laughter on the medical map was that of Norman Cousins, who wrote the popular best-seller Anatomy of an Illness as Observed by the Patient out of his personal experience with healing life-threatening illness through humor. After being diagnosed with a disabling connective-tissue disease and a type of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis and told he had only a one in 500 chance of recovering, Cousins checked himself out of the hospital and followed a self-prescribed regimen of huge doses of Vitamin C and laughter. He watched TV and film comedies, including the Marx Brothers, and claimed he discovered that for every 10 minutes he spent laughing, he received two hours of pain-free sleep. Cousins lived many years longer that his doctors predicted with a higher quality of life.
Norman Cousins maintained that the power of emotion to heal the body, especially that of humor, laughter and joy, was very great. And in the years since, there is evidence that much of what he said is true—laughter and positive moods release endorphins in the brain that fight pain; strengthens the immune system; increases antibodies that fight infection; decreases stress; and acts as an antidepressant.
The relevance of this to addiction and recovery is obvious. Because laughter releases those endorphins, it can be supportive for those who are going through the pain of withdrawal. And the brain chemistry released by laughter, including dopamine, can act as an antidepressant—reducing the emotional pressure to resort to addictive substances or processes. And as foundationsrecoverynetwork.com observes, laughter “can also be utilized in addiction counseling to help reduce client resistance, increase rapport between counselor and client, and help facilitate recovery.”
And as a contributor to anaheimlighthouse.com notes, while in the grip of their addiction, nothing seemed funny. They lost their sense of humor in the obsessive need for alcohol. But as recovery progressed, the ability to laugh came back and helped to reintegrate them with others in private and social settings. And while commenting on the effects of dopamine as mentioned previously, the writer adds,
…humor and drug abuse actually share some common traits in our brains. The high one experiences when drinking or using is due to an increase of dopamine being released in our brains. It causes the brain to process our drinking or using as a positive experience. Likewise, when we laugh, dopamine is released in a similar way. It provides a rush of pleasure and reinforces the idea that you want to repeat the action, in this case, laughing. A study was conducted that showed that when people watch something funny, the same thing happens in the brain as when they use cocaine.
Like Norman Cousins and the writer for Anaheim Lighthouse, Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician from Mumbai, India, is sold on the healing value of laughter. He created a unique practice called “Laughter Yoga” that combines simple Yoga breathing practices and movements with “laughter meditation”; and his approach has been shown to benefit addicts by reducing the levels of stress hormones in their bodies. Interestingly, from a spiritual viewpoint, Dr. Kataria emphasizes that Laughter Yoga is designed to bring forth “the purest form of laughter,” which he describes as laughter “for no reason.”
This actually makes a lot of sense if you think about what all of the spiritual teachings say about discovering a depth of experience and feeling that is beyond ordinary linear thinking, with its cause and effect and “what’s in it for me” orientations; and their descriptions of an original, pristine state of mind that is inherently joyful, one of joy without cause—or reason.
In Yoga Journal’s profile on him, they say that
Kataria goes on to explain that laughter has two sources, one from the body, one from the mind. Adults tend to laugh from the mind. “We use judgments and evaluations about what’s funny and what isn’t,” he says. Children, who laugh much more frequently than adults, laugh from the body. “They laugh all the time they’re playing. Laughter Yoga is based on cultivating your childlike playfulness.”
Kataria recommends the practice of laughter daily, and says to not be discouraged if deliberately “trying” to laugh feels forced at first. His system offers a variety of techniques to get started. You can learn these at any of the 5,000 “laughter clubs” worldwide. There are approximately 200 such clubs in the United States, including ones in Atlanta, New York, Orlando, St. Louis, and Tucson.
Since creating the program in 1995, Kataria has brought Laughter Yoga to schools, orphanages, prisons, senior homes, centers that work with those with disabilities, and corporations. It’s worth noting that while Kataria does charge for teacher-training sessions, he chose not to license the Laughter Yoga brand. As a result, there are many certified teachers that offer free or reduced-fee sessions. In other words, he wanted to present Laughter Yoga to the world as a gift, which is certainly in the spirit of the holiday season we are now in.
I know that as a kid, sometimes it was the simplest gifts that meant the most. (Okay, I did love the really big boxes, too!) Nothing is more simple and direct than the gifts of light and laughter. I wish them for all of you in abundance, now and in the New Year as we ride out the dark days until Spring comes upon us again.