Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Becoming attached to suffering

Much of the work I currently do is with headache patients, who many psychologists feel are one of the most difficult populations to work with. In many cases with a headache patient their symptoms don't show up on an X-ray or any other physical measurement of illness, yet they describe excruciating, debilitating pain that renders them unable to work and attend to their families, and often results in hospitalization.

Because many of their physical symptoms don’t register on medical radar, it is often suggested that these patients are faking or exaggerating their symptoms, and this then becomes a very difficult pain to treat effectively. Is the answer to provide them with large doses of pain medication? This has certainly been the most common approach to the problem, but it is also rife with difficulty. 

These medications are highly addictive, and become a crutch which may imprison the headache patient for the rest of their days. The fact is that pain medications often simply block the pain signal from going where it wants to go, without remotely addressing the source of the pain itself. The drugs in effect become a very expensive band-aid that one can easily become dependent on, and this creates the kind of “repeat” customer that returns to the hospital again and again and again.

Regarding this dependence on drugs, it is important to remember that everything a drug can do, THE BODY CAN DO BY ITSELF!!! This is why drugs work. They mimic the body’s own natural painkillers such as endorphins which are as powerful as any pain medications we have ever and likely will ever create.
So how do we access these endorphins? Many runners will tell you that the “runners high” that they experience during exercise is as pleasurable as anything they have ever experienced. This explains why exercise can become addictive as people want to duplicate this wonderful feeling as often as possible. A psychiatrist named William Glasser wrote a book about this very thing called Positive Addictions (1976) http://www.wglasser.com/whoweare.htm, and his work has influenced an entire generation of people to replace unhealthy behavior with more adaptive ones such as exercise.

But what does all this have to do with laughter? The fact is laughter can activate these very same endorphins. According to Dr. Lee Berk http://www.holisticonline.com/Humor_Therapy/humor_therapy_benefits.htm ,
who has done a great deal of research on the study, laughter provides
“An increase in the number and activity level of natural killer cells that attack viral infected cells and some types of cancer and tumor cells.
An increase in activated T cells (T lymphocytes). There are many T cells that await activation. Laughter appears to tell the immune system to "turn it up a notch."
An increase in the antibody IgA (immunoglobulin A), which fights upper respiratory tract insults and infections.
An increase in gamma interferon, which tells various components of the immune system to "turn on."
An increase in IgB, the immunoglobulin produced in the greatest quantity in body, as well as an increase in Complement 3, which helps antibodies to pierce dysfunctional or infected cells. The increase in both substances was not only present while subjects watched a humor video; there also was a lingering effect that continued to show increased levels the next day.”
Pretty convincing stuff, yet still a lesson many people understand philosophically but still chose not to implement in their own lives. The single most common personality trait I notice in the patients I work with is a state of anhedonia, or lack of joy, that permeates everything in their lives and eventually presents itself as a painful headache. I don’t doubt their suffering when I see this, but also understand that there is a solution which has worked for thousands of years. As Nietzsche said it, “man alone suffers so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent laughter." Laughter and joy are the road back to life, and with these tools our pain can become manageable, and as the Buddha admonished, we can accept suffering yet still find joy in the simple act of being in the world.