Belly Laugh Is Good Medicine; Humor Can Lessen Stress

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 21, 2004 | Go to article overview

Belly Laugh Is Good Medicine; Humor Can Lessen Stress


Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Johns Hopkins University professor Ronald Berk hands out a syllabus at the beginning of each semester with office hours inconvenient for his students.

Mr. Berk, who makes up diseases and medications as examples for students at the School of Nursing, is not teaching drama or creative writing, nor does he have avoidance issues.

The professor of biostatistics and measurement simply is trying to make his students laugh.

"Most professors are pretty dull," he says. "Most professors have no training in dramatics in how to really tell jokes and deliver material in a particular way."

A few metro-area professors, psychologists and doctors find that using humor in the classroom, the workplace or the medical office can ease anxiety over learning, working or being ill and, as research shows, provide social, psychological and physiological benefits.

Mr. Berk, who does in fact have student-friendly office hours, decided to create fictitious, humorous examples for statistical problems since he lacks clinical training to use "real-life" examples. His doctorate is in educational measurement and statistics. He might, for example, propose a clinical trial research design with Zantac, Tictac and Nicnac for students to analyze data on antacids or Triamine, Triayours and Triatheirs for a study of cold remedies. The humor is in the incongruity between what is expected and the twist on what is not expected, giving the punch line, he says.

"They have fun doing this because it sounds ridiculous when they're discussed in class," Mr. Berk says.

Humor, however, is not only for entertainment. It can be used to get students' attention, to provide a hook to the subject to be studied, or to reduce anxiety over learning complex topics and test-taking, he says.

"People don't always listen to what you say," says Art Gliner, founder of the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, which supports research on humor and is located at the University of Maryland College Park campus. "Giving information with humor helps people remember your message," he says.

In his practice, Dr. Lawrence Lessin, medical director of the Washington Cancer Institute at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest, does not overtly use humor, he says.

"I do joke with patients and try to keep things on a positive, light note when possible," he says.

Dr. Lessin is careful that the jokes he tells consider patients' individual sensitivities. He may play off what they say, use a pun or tell a joke, perhaps about their diet, weight or other issues cancer patients confront.

"I don't particularly try to be funny, but you want to keep patients in as good humor as possible," he says. "You can see it lessens tension or stress."

Patients at the cancer institute get a dose of humor in patient support groups, where humor can be used in presentations. It can also be a mood-booster during pet, art and music alternative therapies, Dr. Lessin says.

Humor used in combination with cognitive-behavior therapy, which focuses on cognition and understanding of events, can help patients who are anxious or depressed, says Lourdes Griffin, director of Outpatient Behavioral Health Service at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest. …

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