Can Laughter Cure Your Driving Anxiety?
One common form of anxiety centered on driving a vehicle, known as driving anxiety, can have debilitating effects on its victims. People who suffer from fear of driving typically suffer through a variety of both physical and emotional symptoms, ranging from mild discomfort to a full-blown panic attack. The driver may feel weak, disoriented, have racing thoughts, and fears that he or she might die. A person going through an attack of driving anxiety may also tremble, sweat, feel nauseous, or have an increased heart rate. Someone who experiences driving phobia may rearrange his or her life around not having to get into a vehicle, which can greatly restrict his or her lifestyle and even relationships.
For the many people who have to deal with the repercussions of driving anxiety, finding a way to manage these panic attacks is the key to being able to drive again. One new found way of managing fear is through laughter therapy, long used as an alternative therapy in modern medicine. But how does laughter therapy work, and why would it be useful for treating driving-induced panic attacks?
Use of Laughter in Medical Procedures
The use of laughter to ease anxiety has been commonly used as a form of alternative therapy in many medical procedures, especially those related to diagnosing and treating cancer. In a study by Chapple and Ziebland in 2004, doctors used humor to help ease the anxiety of patients learning to cope with testicular cancer. In another study, conducted by Joshua, Clarke, and Corronco in 2005, doctors used techniques of humor therapy to help ease the frustration patients felt with having to deal with too many specialists over the course of their treatment regimen. The study found that patients had an easier time establishing relationships with a battalion of physicians if they formed humorous bonds with them during the early phases of treatment.
Dr. Norman Cousins was perhaps the earliest proponent of laughter therapy. As outlined in his book Anatomy of an Illness, Cousins suffered from a debilitating illness. Told that he had only a small chance of survival, Cousins embarked on a self-help regimen that included a course of laughter therapy. His therapeutic regimen included watching funny movies such as the Marx Brothers and old television shows like Candid Camera. According to Cousins, “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”
Why has laughter therapy become accepted as a form of alternative therapy, and how can it be used to calm a panic attack caused by driving?
The Physical and Emotional Effect of Laughter on the Body
Countless studies have shown the positive effects that hearty laughter can bring about in the human body. Focusing just on the physical changes brought about by a good belly laugh, researchers have noted the following:
- Improved blood flow – according to a research study at the University of Maryland, test subjects who watched comedies instead of dramatic programs showed normal expansion and contraction, allowing blood to circulate easily.
- Better sleep and general relaxation – as noted by Dr. Cousins, hearty laughter throughout the day improved his ability to relax and allowed him a few hours of pain-free sleep at night.
- Stronger pain management – many studies of patients experiencing pain or discomfort show that when these patients laugh, they report they aren’t as bothered by the pain as they were before.
So while laughter can have a profound effect on the body’s ability to manage pain and stress, how can it help the mind in dealing with the onslaught of a stressful situation?
In Dr. Paul McGhee’s book, Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health (AuthorHouse, 2010), he cites several examples of high-stress situations that were made better by the use of humor. In one such example, a cable car stranded 69 passengers above the East River in New York City for nearly 11 hours. The passengers eased their fears of falling by telling jokes and singing songs together to break the tension.
In another example, he cites the Quantas Airlines accident a few years ago in which a small explosion caused a hole the size of a car in the side of the jet. The plane descended quickly as the oxygen masks fell from the ceiling, and the passengers endured the ordeal in silence. Only when the plane landed safely in Manila did the entire group of passengers (346 people in all) burst into relieved laughter.
In both situations, laughter broke the tension of an otherwise unbearable situation. Once the fear had been defused, these people were able to either bear it (in the case of the cable car) or put the dreadful situation behind them (in the case of the jet plane). But why is laughter so helpful in these situations, and how can it be used to defuse a panic attack?
How Humor Can Ease Driving Anxiety
Dr. Steven Sultanoff, a clinical psychologist in California, uses laughter therapy as a way to fight a panic attack in patients. He asks each patient to remember a situation that provoked uncontrollable laughter in the past. He then has each patient recall that image when the panic attack begins.
According to Sultanoff, the humor can override the negative emotions provoked by the anxiety attack and can even alter the body’s physiological response as well. This is because laughter reduces cortisol levels in your body. Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” increases during panic attacks.
Laughter also provides an emotional release during stressful situations, as we saw in the examples outlined above. It also can create powerful physical changes in the body, such as improved blood flow and an increased anesthetic effect that can help combat the physical symptoms of a panic attack.
If you suffer from driving anxiety, incorporating laughter into your self-help regimen can be a powerful tool to help you override the emotional and physical impact of a panic attack. Try to find ways you can incorporate humor as you prepare to drive. Here are a few tips to try:
- If you enjoy listening to music as you drive, try listening to humorous songs, a funny audio book, or a concert by a stand-up comedian. If you find this too distracting, try listening before you drive to pre-empt the panic attack.
- Imagine a funny situation and recall that situation when you feel a panic attack arise.
- Sing funny songs to yourself as you sit in the car.
Laughter is an excellent alternative therapy to use in your battle against driving anxiety. It’s free, fun, and has no side effects, so there’s no harm in giving it a try.