Why Laughter is Your Best Medicine – Dr. Colleen Cooke
We all know the phrase “Laughter is the best medicine.” And according to my good friend Dr. Colleen Cooke, there’s scientific proof to back up this old adage.
Dr. Cooke has her Doctoral Degree in Healthcare Education and a Master’s in Counseling. She’s currently the professor of Recreational Therapy at Slippery Rock University in Western Pennsylvania.
She’s worked extensively with older adults with memory issues, people with disabilities, and people recovering from addiction.
She recently co-authored a book called The Fun Encyclopedia for Therapists.
And she’s also a certified laughter leader.
1:16 Invitation to get a free subscription to Sound Health Newsletter
1:45 Dr. Colleen Cooke Introduction
2:52 What is Recreational Therapy?
6:00 Jim on seeing the whole person and not just a symptom or condition
7:18 How early Rec therapy helped vets coming home the World Wars
9:17 Using Rec Therapy to help them reduce medication
11:05 How a terrible accident inspired Dr. Cooke to want to work with people with disabilities
13:00 Colleen and Jim on the lack of ‘community’ in the classroom
17:30 How Colleen measures her own level of wellness?
20:06 Nurturing student wellness
21:30 Using humor and laughter for wellness
24:00 How laughter helps to lower blood pressure and increases social connection
25:00 How laughing together improves relationships
31:56 How ‘forced’ laughter gives you the same wellness benefits as natural laughter
33:42 The Fun Encyclopedia for Therapists book
36:20 Using music and rec therapy with people in recovery
40:37 How music helps older adults with memory challenges
43:32 How music helps people with mental disabilities
Cleveland Clinic Video: If you knew what people were going through, would you treat them differently?
The Fun Encyclopedia for Therapists Book
“Alive Inside” Video
Email Dr. Cooke: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Donovan: Today on the Sound Health podcast.
Colleen Cooke: So there was a woman, Naina who did not make any sense at all when she spoke. She babbled, bah, bah, bah. That was her speech. She was in advanced stages of dementia. She was still walking around and really social, although nobody could really understand what she was saying. And I played the guitar and so we just had a group sing along one and we were saying, “You Are My Sunshine,” right? Well she started to sing the words. And so we stopped and I said “Naina that was really nice.” And she said, “Oh, I miss my husband and I want to go home.” And I said, “Tell me about home.” And she told me about the brick street that she lived on. She made sense. I mean she had, she spoke in complete sentences for a couple of minutes and then went back to… But we had that lucid moment where people around us suddenly saw another human being who had a past, who had a history that was there. It was in there somewhere.
Jim Donovan: Before we get started, I’d like to invite you to take advantage of our free resource I made for you. It’s called the Sound Health Newsletter. In it, I share the latest research in music and health, plus you’ll learn music and wellness exercises that you can use every day to feel your best. You also get discounts and first access to all my products and events. Remember, it’s completely free. Just come visit me at DonovanJealth.com to get started today. That’s DonovanHealth.com
Jim Donovan: Hey there, this is Jim Donovan. Welcome to the show. I am so glad you’re here. I want to thank you for tuning in today and I am so excited for today’s guest. She’s a dear friend of mine. I think you’re going to love her. Her name is Dr. Colleen Cooke. Colleen has her doctoral degree in Healthcare Education and a Master’s in Counseling. Currently she is a professor of Recreational Therapy at Slippery Rock University right here in Western Pennsylvania. She’s worked extensively with older adults with memory issues, people with disabilities and people recovering from addiction. Recently, she co-authored a book called The Fun Encyclopedia for Therapists, which we got to hear about this… And one of the things I’m really excited about is that she is a certified laughter leader. Colleen, welcome to the show. I’m so glad to have you here today.
Colleen Cooke: Thanks Jim. I’m really, really psyched to be here, so thanks for inviting me.
Jim Donovan: Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve done a bunch of work up at Slippery Rock as you know and honestly it was the first time I’d encountered the term recreational therapy. For the listeners out there who’ve never heard of this before, can you tell us a little like what is recreational therapy?
Colleen Cooke: Sure. We use recreation as a tool in therapy. It’s a clinical science, if you will. We use recreation to restore functioning, remediate symptoms and rehabilitate, so that means that we can work with a number of different populations. I worked most of my professional career with people in inpatient and outpatient psychiatry units, certain patient outpatient psych, but we work in drug and alcohol rehab, people with physical disabilities, spinal cord injury, brain injury, intellectual disability. Obviously the elderly we mentioned, veterans right now, veterans, the VA is in fact the largest employer of recreational therapists in the United States. So anywhere that people have concerns with illness or disability or wellness, we could work with those.
Jim Donovan: That’s a lot of different kinds of people.
Colleen Cooke: And it’s really, really a cool therapy because we focus on five domains. We focus on the whole person; intellectually or cognitively, emotionally, physically, spiritually and socially. So we look at the whole person and we look at what they need. What is their disability or illness obviously, and how can we help repair that or restore functioning in that area. But also everything that we do is purposeful, focused on the individual. This is a really simple way of looking at it. But for instance, if I had a stroke, I’m an avid golfer, so if I had a right sided stroke, my left side would be weak and my rec therapist might take me out onto a golf course and help me work out my swing again. I mean that’s a very simplistic, short way to put it, but that’s kind of the idea. We’re always looking to improve function and if we can improve function, we improve quality of life of people.
Jim Donovan: Well that sounds like to me is that it’s not one size fits all.
Colleen Cooke: Absolutely not. No. Our treatment is focused on each separate individual, what they need, what they like. And that’s another unique thing about recreational therapy is that we don’t focus on weakness or deficit. We focus on obviously what their areas of need are, but what it is that they like and what skill that they have that we can use to help them get better.
Jim Donovan: Because then they’d be more motivated to do the thing. Whatever you’re asking them to do.
Colleen Cooke: When we get way buy in, we get excellent buy in because they want to do what we’re offering.
Jim Donovan: That makes sense and I can imagine like if it’s somebody who’s had a recent injury and they’re in pain, that the resistance would be way up for everything. So to have something that they like and something that is also purposeful. That makes sense that that would really help.
Colleen Cooke: And the activity or the intervention, see, we intervene on the disease and illness process and the intervention is something that has meaning to them already.
Jim Donovan: And I like the idea that we’re not just treating one symptom, but we’re looking at a person, a full person with all the different needs that a person has. Tell me if I’m thinking of this the right way, but I look at—here’s my way in for this person. This is the route. I can see that this is the route. And I, as the rec therapist, I would have to be almost approaching it like a puzzle. Like how am I going to access this person so that they can be most likely to get the healing that they need. Is that accurate?
Colleen Cooke: Yeah. And another part of rec therapy that I really appreciate when I practice is that not only am I working on say, the manifestations of a thought disorder, but I’m also helping that person spiritually. I’m helping them emotionally. And who knows, we might even help them physically. We go out for a walk and get some physical activity. I mean we can do so much for people without just having them exercise their left arm. Not that exercising that the left arm is a bad thing but we can do more.
Jim Donovan: And how long has this field been around for folks who aren’t familiar with this? I just want to assume that people don’t know anything, even if they do.
Colleen Cooke: We first started to see the use of recreation way back with Florence Nightingale, but then a lot more after the world Wars when a lot of the men in particular were coming home with horrible trauma. If you ever saw Saving Private Ryan, that made me so sick to my stomach. I can’t imagine having lived through and having to continue living after having lived through some of the stuff that those men went through. And we saw folks with different kinds of wounds, different kinds of injuries than we had seen before. And so we started to look at the use of recreation as therapy and then the field has evolved because at some point it was recreation just for the purpose of recreation just to divert attention. But that’s not what it is. It’s evolved so that everything that we do is purposeful. It’s not just activity for the sake of activity.
Jim Donovan: We’re not just playing checkers.
Colleen Cooke: No, it’s not. We don’t play for a living. One of the things when I was looking over some of the questions that you were asking, what do we do? And I mentioned that this is a clinical field, so we complete assessment, then we do goal plans, then we implement the intervention, then we evaluate and then we document and we’re just another part of the treatment team in the medical.
Jim Donovan: You are part of the medical team just like the doctors and the nurse and the pharmacist. And that’s, I think a misconception that a lot of people have about these kinds of therapies is that they’re not based in science, when in fact it’s extremely based in science. And yet it’s not mainstream. Like we don’t hear about this on the news every day. But that’s one of the things that we’d like to do on this show is to shine a big light on this stuff, especially when it’s something that’s not a pharmaceutical that we know can help in a real way.
Colleen Cooke: And in fact, when we’re working with older folks with dementia, for example, one of the things we might work toward is getting them off of the medications that keep them calm. Let’s talk to people, let’s just spend some time with folks and give them some attention. And maybe, they’ll be calm, maybe they’ll be a little bit happier and when a person acts out, and I hate that, because I act out all the time. But when a person behaves in a way that is uncomfortable for the rest of the staff, they are expressing an unmet need and they just don’t have the means, when they have dementia, they don’t have the means for expression of that need. So there’s a lot that we can do when we think and care and want to.
Jim Donovan: It sounds and feels like a very compassionate field. People with big hearts coming in and doing the hard work.
Colleen Cooke: One of the things that I talk with my students about is that each of us has a story. None of us came here by mistake. We’re here because we’re called, I mean that’s what I believe that we’re called to do something with people. And this is where we’ve ended up.
Jim Donovan: How did you get into this? Like what called you to do this?
Colleen Cooke: So when I was in second grade, my parents, this is a little bit of a long story so you might I need to edit down. So I was in second grade, my parents had my dad’s boss and his wife over to our house for dinner. And on the way home, they were in an accident. A young boy had been riding his bike and he rode out of his driveway, which had two steep walls on both sides that blinded him and so he rode out and they hit him. It turns out that that boy was my best friend, he’s name was Brian, and he had a traumatic brain injury. I mean he has never been the same. I ran into him about 18 maybe 15 years after that. And he really, he really suffered from the traumatic brain injury. But anyway, there was a place in New York where I grew up, there were two places where people would go to buy their Christmas trees, Adam’s Fairy-Grow Farms and Herman’s Nursery.
Colleen Cooke: And every year for about three or four years after the accident, my family would end up buying our Christmas tree on the same day that Brian’s family was there. And I would see Brian and he would be in a wheelchair and he wore brown wool mittens. I would go over to him and I would say, “Brian do you remember me?” And he would grab my hand between his two mittens and he wouldn’t let go. And I would go with his family to buy their Christmas tree. This happened like three or four years in a row. He was not speaking yet, but there was a connection there and I just, I mean, I didn’t know that I would be in recreational therapy, but I knew that I wanted to work with people who had injury or disability-
Jim Donovan: That’s formative.
Colleen Cooke: Oh my gosh, I was in second grade and that was it. Wow.
Jim Donovan: It’s a sad story, but a beautiful story too.
Colleen Cooke: I’m blessed. I guess. I don’t know what the word is and I think that all of my students have stories as well, and so I invite them to share those with each other because I think it’s important. I think that it does inform our work and how we interact with each other.
Jim Donovan: One of the things I think that is missing in the classroom, whether we’re talking about college or even high school, is the feeling of community. I know so many students, and I know I went through this too, even in my grad work where I’d be in a room with people for a semester and never have interaction with them. Now if I was forced to do it, if I had to do it, I would, but it just seems like a missed opportunity like every professor, every teacher, like if we don’t connect those people that are together every day, if we don’t do things regularly that help them to connect, I think we help them to miss out on real friendships and connection because, face it, if we’re together an hour a day, three days a week, I think there’s so much good that could happen in addition to the things that you’re trying to teach the person, there’s more to be taught. I think is what I’m trying to say.
Colleen Cooke: And I think you’re exactly right. I teach a lot more than recreational therapy. I don’t know what students learn, but I try to teach it a lot more. We talked the last time we were together, we didn’t talk about it, but I mentioned weenus because-
Jim Donovan: This is a real thing. People look it up.
Colleen Cooke: I’m not going to tell you about it right now, but community building community. And that’s what I try to do in every single class that I teach is get students talking to each other because for a couple of reasons. They’re going to be interacting with people pretty intensely when they get into the field and they have to be able to listen and they have to be able to reflect what the person has said to them.
Colleen Cooke: And they have to be able to show that they understand with compassion. So we talk about communication all the time and I really try to build community in classroom so that students aren’t afraid to make mistakes, aren’t afraid to do a great job and aren’t afraid to hear about either of those.
Jim Donovan: And plus it’s not just the person or the people that they work with one-on-one or the groups. But then there’re the families that come in.
Colleen Cooke: Right.
Jim Donovan: And the different kinds of communication that have to happen between you and the caregiver, the parent, the brother, the sister and the patient. Like those are all different skillsets, different ways of speaking. And we’ve all had those people who might’ve been in charge of us who sucked at that. It can be really challenging if you’re in pain when someone just doesn’t know how to express what they’re trying to tell you.
Colleen Cooke: Right. There’s a really good video that the Cleveland Clinic puts out on compassion and it shows without speaking words, but written words, shows people going through their day and it’ll have a little bubbles; “just found out he has cancer.” Or “Just found out his wife’s pregnant.” And at the end of it, it says, if you knew what people were going through, would you treat them differently? And sometimes the answer’s yes and I need to smack my…Not that smack myself. But I mean I get upset with myself because I want to be kind, always, and I want to be compassionate always, but I don’t always know the story. And unfortunately the story makes a difference. Sometimes I just need to pay attention more. And so back to that, everybody has a story thing I need to listen to myself when I say that.
Jim Donovan: It’s a constant work in progress. We live in an intense world, there’s stress around every corner and that doesn’t help us feel great in the first place but what you’re saying is right on that, for me, I try to assume that the person, whoever the person is, has got some sort of shit going on whether it’s my wife or my kid or the guy that just cut me off and flipped me the bird. And I think it’s one of the hardest things to do is to go into my compassion space and go, “You know, of all the problems I could have this guy flipping me off isn’t, isn’t one.”
Colleen Cooke: And he might have other redeeming qualities.
Jim Donovan: I might actually get along with this person outside, but just in this one moment, I did something they really got on this guy’s nerves. You’re right though. It’s just taking that step back. Take a breath and go, all right, hold on. What’s important here?
Colleen Cooke: And you know the measure of my wellness and that area is, is when I’m able to just pull over and let that person go by and not worry about it. I know I’m doing better-
Jim Donovan: Go ahead. You’re good, man.
Colleen Cooke: Maybe he’s on the way to the hospital. Who knows? Or she… whatever.
Jim Donovan: I’ve been that guy I’ve been in a hurry.
Colleen Cooke: Me too! And that’s the other thing, to recognize that I behave badly or aggressively or in unthinkingly sometimes too. So…
Jim Donovan: And I learned a while ago that if somebody sparks me, then it’s something in me that’s being sparked. They didn’t do it to me. It was such a big revelation when I realized I’m actually not the victim of this stuff, that that spark of whatever anger or irritation is already in me. It’s already in me and that’s mine.
Jim Donovan: When you’re talking with students about stuff like this, are they getting it? Does it take a while to sink in? How does it work with the 18-19 year olds?
Colleen Cooke: You’d have to ask them. I mean I do. I think that, I definitely know that there are some students who get it. I actually did square breathing in one of my classes at the beginning of the semester, this semester. It was, I think maybe in the first or second week and they’re getting all of their assignments and it’s like, Oh my God, I’ll never be able to do this and I tell them things, I felt that way too. We do it one assignment at a time, one reading at a time, whatever. So we breathed and after class, this young woman said, “Can I talk to you in private?” And I said, “Sure.” She said, “Can we go to your office?” And I said, “Sure.” We went down to my office and she said, “I just want to tell you when you did that it changed my life.” Taking the time to breathe and to just be, and I talk about putting your feet on the ground in this moment with my feet on the ground when I’m breathing in this moment, I’m truly okay.
Colleen Cooke: Now back here I might not be okay. And in this next moment I’m… But right here, right now, which is the one that counts. I’m okay. And she got it. And she really got it and was just very gracious in her talking to me about it. It’s been a journey for me and I just, at this point I feel like this is the kind of stuff that I know to be true in my life that I can’t not talk about anymore.
Jim Donovan: That’s it. And sometimes I feel like the students are treated, it’s almost like we shepherd them in and then push them out and here comes the next group and we push them out and we forget that they’re young human beings with their own pain and their own life. Just like taking that time to say, “Hey, we’re going to take five minutes out of this, this class and we’re just going to relax. Because I know if you’re relaxed, you’re going to learn more and you’re going to enjoy coming here.”
Colleen Cooke: Don’t get me wrong. I get angry sometimes with them, but I try to make it an environment where they’re comfortable. If I see my students start to fall asleep, shake seven, everybody stand up and some of them want to lead it now. It gets their brain are re oxygenated and they’re awake again and okay, now we can finish this boring lecture.
Jim Donovan: Colleen is referring to an exercise I taught her. We call it the seven shake. You just shake all the limbs out and it gets you reinvigorated again. I love that one. I use it the first day of class and usually I lose a few kids.
Colleen Cooke: But the other thing that it gets them doing is laughing.
Jim Donovan: It’s the whole thing.
Jim Donovan: That’s a great segue because I want to talk about your work with humor and laughter. So there’s a thing called a certified laughter leader?
Colleen Cooke: Yes. I’m one.
Jim Donovan: You got to tell me about this. I had no idea this even existed.
Colleen Cooke: First, you have to laugh with me on the count of three one, two, three.
Jim Donovan: I’m not sure I can stop! Well that was easy.
Colleen Cooke: For you and me IT might be easy. It’s hard for kids when I do it they look at me like I’m not a good teacher.
Jim Donovan: There’s all kinds of judgment out there, huh?
Colleen Cooke: Yeah. I took a course from the world laughter tour. Steve Wilson is the founder of the world laughter tour. I want to say three or four years ago. It was a two-day or two and a half day course. It taught about the benefits of laughter, the background, the research, some of that stuff. And then actually taught us how to facilitate what are called laughter circles. It’s really, really a nice organization and practice. And these are my words, but I would say that they’re true. That it’s about laughing together and building community to create peace in the world.
Colleen Cooke: And that’s kind of what their mission, I’m not speaking to their mission verbatim, but that’s pretty much what it is. And I fell in love. I’ve enjoyed laughter and humor and wanted to study it for a long, long time. And a few years ago my colleague wrote a grant and that enabled our three faculty to engage in stress management techniques of our choice. And I chose laughter and humor. It has been, again, one of the blessings in my life because now I know some of the science behind it. I definitely can talk about the benefits of it and it’s really cool. I talked with Jennifer Willford who was on your podcast a couple weeks ago-
Jim Donovan: One of the first guests.
Colleen Cooke: I talked with her last week because as I was reading about, again, the benefits of laughter and listening to your podcasts and when you had Jennifer on how it works in the brain. So many of the benefits of laughter align perfectly with the benefits of sound and rhythm in terms of what happens to us physiologically and what happens to us cognitively and emotionally. For instance, if I were to start laughing right now, like we just did. If I had taken my blood pressure before we laughed, it would have gone up after we laughed and then we stopped laughing. If we were to take our blood pressures now, they would probably be lower than they were before we started. The release of endorphins and oxytocin, all of that occurs when we laugh.
Jim Donovan: Oxytocin, that’s the bonding hormone.
Colleen Cooke: There’s research right now that I’m just thrilled about that says that when people laugh together, they tend to like each other more.
Jim Donovan: Social psychology research?
Colleen Cooke: Yeah. And I’m so thrilled with that because of the work that I want to do as I continue to move forward, so much shit. So much disharmony. I don’t even know what the word is. People aren’t civil to each other. At any rate, if we can get people laughing together without talking about all the crap, maybe we’ll like each other again. Cause I-
Jim Donovan: And see each other as human beings.
Colleen Cooke: Yes. And you said this a couple of weeks ago that there are good people. There are really good people out here. And I got lost. I got lost a few years ago and thought there aren’t a whole lot of good people anymore and we’re just… And through laughter and studying positive psychology and doing the work that I’ve been doing with you, it’s changing my life. It’s changing my perspective and it’s changing the way I walk through life, which is probably most important cause I want to live for a while.
Jim Donovan: Yea, right? Well we need you.
Colleen Cooke: Did I just go off on a tangent?
Jim Donovan: You went right on actually the whole way on. All these things, whether we’re chanting ohm or we’re praying the rosary or we’re laughing. Ultimately I think leads us back to remembering who the heck we are, which isn’t on Facebook and it’s not the news and it’s not all of the, the BS. We’re at our essence like we’re still neighbors and if there was a tornado, I don’t care who you voted for, I’m coming to help you. And I know that people beside me would do the same for me too. And so we remember all these, these practices laughing, yoga, Tai Chi, like it strips away the illusion.
Colleen Cooke: And drumming, the way we drummed together a few weeks ago. I mean I compare that to laughing together. I got to teach a class on laughter and humor and how to make life better through laughter and humor. And so I got to teach all of this stuff. So it lowers blood pressure, increases oxygenated blood to the brain so you have better cognition, better memory, certainly better relationships with people and a lot of that aligns with the science of rhythm and sound. And laughter is sound and rhythm and breathing.
Jim Donovan: The thing I love is that it’s built in like this is a built in feature that we are born with. Just like crying and just like yelling, which also does its own thing to release stuff when we need to.
Colleen Cooke: Remember Joni Mitchell laughing and crying is the same release. It’s endorphins, crying releases endorphins too.
Jim Donovan: It’s so true.
Jim Donovan: I work with the 18 year olds and the 19 year olds and what I notice—and this is not a judgment on them, I just noticed this—is that A) they’re freaking anxious as all get out, especially socially anxious and B) very worried as a lot of people are about being judged. Do you encounter that same thing?
Colleen Cooke: Yeah.
Jim Donovan: How do you deal with it when you’re trying to do laughter with them?
Colleen Cooke: Well, I make a fool of myself. I mean, I model the behavior that I want them to engage in. And you know, it’s funny, the first time I taught the humor class, I walked in the first day of class, it was a 9:00 AM class, they’re all freshmen. And I walked in and I’m going gangbusters, “Alright on the count of three, everybody laugh.” And they’re like, I thought they were going to crawl under their desks. They were flat and just, and I thought, Oh my gosh. And I walked out and I said to my colleague, that was horrible. I don’t know what I’m going to do. And she said, that was the same thing with mine and you know, and I went home and I talked to my wife and I said, this happened. And she said, it was nine o’clock in the morning on Monday morning, the first day of classes, they’re brand new freshmen. They’re probably trying to figure out where the bathroom is, where the next class is, who is this woman? And so the next day that I had them, I went in and I said, let’s just start all over.
Colleen Cooke: And I forgot to meet them where they are. When I remembered to meet them where they are, it went a lot better. And those kids did wonderful work. They did wonderful work.
Jim Donovan: Once they realize that they’re safe and that I have their back and I’m not going to like make them do anything that’s unsafe, then they’ll start to try it and then once they start to feel the benefit, then they’re like, Oh, can we do that again? Let’s come on. Let’s do that again.
Colleen Cooke: Well, my sister teaches high school English in New York and I got to go do some stress work with her students in October. And those kids, high schools, freshmen and sophomores in high school are feeling stressed. Totally stressed out. So I did tapping and they now are asking my sister, “Mrs. Mace, can we tap first? Can we do tapping before…?” It is wonderful. It has changed my life dramatically. And I have to share it and it’s laughter, it’s drumming, it’s breathing, it’s all of this stuff. My journey right now, this is where I am and I’m just pleased as pie to be here. So it’s very cool stuff.
Jim Donovan: It’s almost like we’re… I know we haven’t discovered any of this, but it’s almost like we are teaching people the user’s manual for the human body. Here’s how you actually deal with this thing and here are the ways that you can tilt it so that you don’t suffer as much while you’re down here on the planet.
Colleen Cooke: I don’t know the science, I really don’t know the science the way someone like Jennifer does or even someone like you knows. But I know what works for me. I know what works for my body and I know what works for my mind and my soul and I know when I have to do it.
Jim Donovan: That’s the healer instinct. And you also know that working with challenging populations who aren’t going to put up with any crap that it either works or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t work that we have to move on fast. Besides the exercise that we did a little while ago, could you describe a laughter exercise that you do with people? This is going to be hard isn’t it?
Colleen Cooke: Oh, well no, I mean it’s going to be hard to do it without… I might get up and run around your studio. So one of my favorites is ants in your pants. So have you ever had ants in your pants or ice down your back?
Jim Donovan: Oh yeah.
Colleen Cooke: So what is the response to ice down your bank? It’s “ha,haaa, ha,ha,ha,ho,ho” and it’s all those, “ha ha ho, ho he, he’s,” the breathing and the exhaling that exercise the lungs. And so you get a group of 20 people running around in a circle acting like they have ants in their pants or I stay on their backs and then they so it starts out with forced laughter and it ends up with natural laughter. And what’s interesting, and I like to share this with the people that I’m laughing with, is that the forced laughter reaps the same benefits as the natural laughter.
Colleen Cooke: So when I say to them, okay, everybody, “How do they say hello in Hawaii? Aloha.” Okay, well we’re going to say, “Alo—ha,ha,ha.” They look at me like, okay! But they do it and they start to get it once they become more comfortable in the group and there are some guidelines that we establish like it’s a safe place. We’re not laughing at you. We don’t talk about religion or politics. We’re not, this is totally safe and we’re here, all of us for the same reason and that is to enjoy this and get healthy.
Jim Donovan: Feel better. That’s huge though. Just to know that even if I am fake laughing, that I’m still reducing my blood pressure, I’m still getting the feel good chemicals, all that stuff is still happening.
Colleen Cooke: That’s amazing to me. Such an important part of using that as therapy as a tool.
Jim Donovan: I think it would be a really good buy in for the person who tends not to be silly and is maybe more analytical and how they approach the world. Like, I’m not, no… What could this possibly do for me?. But to explain it that way, it’s like, “Oh, well even if I fake it, it’s still going to work. I can’t mess it up.” I love that.
Jim Donovan: Now you were telling me about, you wrote a chapter in a book recently. I have it right here. It’s called the Fun Encyclopedia for Therapists—Proven Activities for Therapists. Tell me about this book. What’s happening with that?
Colleen Cooke: I was approached by the co-author to write the chapter on humor because he said, “I want a chapter on humor. Why don’t I go to the expert?” Which was really cool in and of itself. Because he was like the guru. He wrote my textbooks when I was an undergraduate in Integrative Therapy. David Austin. Hi David.
Jim Donovan: Shout out to David!
Colleen Cooke: He called me and asked me to write this chapter and I said, “Sure.” I said, “Can I get credit for the chapter?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Okay, well send me the format how you want it.” And a few days later, like four days later, he called and he said, “I was thinking, would you consider co-authoring this with me?” How do you say no to that? The book is broken into chapters, I guess that are kind of treatment modalities, outdoor activities, experiential activities, music activities, laughter activities, activities you can do one on one, small group activities…
Jim Donovan: So research based activities for counseling.
Colleen Cooke: Yes. Well, the beginning of each chapter talks a little bit about the research, but the meat of the chapter consists of interventions or activities that we got from therapists who are in the field practicing recreational therapy that they have found to be effective with any one of a number of populations.
Jim Donovan: What a valuable resource. Everyone doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time.
Colleen Cooke: We’ll do another edition, I’m sure.
Jim Donovan: Is it out yet?
Colleen Cooke: It is out. It kind of went out the last week of October I think and-
Jim Donovan: Is like Amazon we can get it?
Colleen Cooke: No. Sagamore publishers. If you just go to sagamore.com and type in the Fun Encyclopedia, it’ll will come right up.
Jim Donovan: Cool. Well I’ll definitely include that in our show notes on DonovanHealth.com for anybody out there that’s looking for something like this, I am one of those. I’m definitely going to go there and get that.
Colleen Cooke: I’m certainly willing to autograph anything that comes my way.
Jim Donovan: I will certainly be asking for that and hopefully I’ll get a picture too.
Colleen Cooke: I think we already have a picture or two but-
Jim Donovan: We’ll just have to keep taking them-
Colleen Cooke: With the book.
Jim Donovan: With the book in hand. Just be pimping the whole thing out.
Colleen Cooke: The other thing about the book is that it’s not just for recreational therapists. It can be used by occupational therapists, music therapists, counselor therapists, and we wanted to keep it broad like that so that we’d have a broader audience.
Jim Donovan: Is it safe enough for a rookie like me to use?
Colleen Cooke: Absolutely.
Jim Donovan: I want to tilt the conversation a little towards some of the work that you do with people in addiction. This is something that I do a lot of as well. It’s near and dear to my heart. I know it is for you too. And I just wondered, how do you find the things that you do with rec therapy, how does that pair with someone who’s just out of detox and trying to get healthy again?
Colleen Cooke: One of the treatment modalities is called leisure education. And the primary goal of leisure education interventions is to improve quality of life through the use of leisure. Most people who, this is a gross generalization, so I could be wrong, so maybe I shouldn’t make that, but I think that a lot of people who drink, drink in their leisure time.
Colleen Cooke: I don’t think that they’re drinking on the job, most people. When it’s a problem, they may be drinking on the job. So most drinking occurs during our leisure. So if most drinking occurs during our leisure, what other types of activity, recreation, pastime could I use that might meet the need that is being met by the drink or the drug? That’s really simplistic because I think that the problem goes deeper than just using a drink or a drug. So another aspect of leisure education could be teaching stress management, anger management, coping skills. All of those things that they might turn to a drink or drug to sooth themselves if they’re stressed out or anxious or angry or lonely or depressed or-
Jim Donovan: Have four different diagnoses.
Colleen Cooke: …Right.
Jim Donovan: One of the things I’ve learned in all the different places I’ve worked is that the people that run the places tell me about 97% of the people come from a trauma background. It’s not that they’re just using heroin or drinking, it’s that there’s this cascade of life stuff that has really led to this behavior. That if we can get them to stop using whatever the substance is, but if we don’t deal with the other big elephant in the room, it’s likely that the person is going to go back to try to cover that pain again.
Colleen Cooke: If you look at the 12 steps of whatever 12 step program you’re looking, for just about every single step, there is some leisure education or recreational therapy intervention that can aid a person in the completion of that step. Whether it’s writing or journaling, listening to music to help them get to the feeling that they need to write about, becoming connected with some power that’s beyond them—and that can be on a forest bath, forest bathing. It can be just on a hike. There are so many ways that we can use leisure to help people recover and help them grow.
Jim Donovan: Help them to see that it’s possible to feel good without the substance. It’s what I do with the drumming. The reason I’m in the places, is “Hey look, we can be together, we can hang out together, we can laugh hysterically. We can do something productive and we can do something that’s beautiful.”
Colleen Cooke: One of the things that I think is helpful and unfortunately often not the case, is that the person who is facilitating that process, I think it’s helpful if that person’s in recovery because if you tell me you’ve been through what I’m going through and I believe you, I’m going to pay better attention to you. I know a lot of people want to work with people who are in recovery and I just caution them just to know, they may not get the same kind of response that they would if they were in recovery. I think everybody can work the 12 steps. Everybody can-
Jim Donovan: Sure.
Colleen Cooke: …whether they have a problem with addiction or not, it’s a good way to live, but-
Jim Donovan: To have some sort of context-
Colleen Cooke: Absolutely.
Jim Donovan: So that you can gain trust. That’s a really big deal.
Colleen Cooke: It is. Well and it’s the same, I think if a person has a traumatic brain injury or has an amputation, they’re going to listen to someone who is like them in that sense.
Jim Donovan: Because otherwise you don’t know what I’m going through.
Colleen Cooke: Right.
Jim Donovan: When you work with older adults, so the folks with the memory issues, I know that you use music with these folks. Do you have a story or anything you can tell me about using music with these people?
Colleen Cooke: I have… One of my favorite stories is my first job out of college. There was a woman, Naina, who did not make any sense at all when she spoke. She babbled, bah, bah, bah. That was her speech. She was in advanced stages of dementia. She was still walking around and really social, although nobody could really understand what she was saying. As I played the guitar and so we just had a group sing along and we were saying, “You Are My Sunshine.” She started to sing the words. We stopped and I said, “Naina that was really nice.” And she said, “Oh, I miss my husband and I want to go home.” And I said, “Tell me about home.” And she told me about the brick street that she lived on.
Colleen Cooke: She made sense. I mean she spoke in complete sentences for a couple of minutes and then went back to… But what we had that lucid moment where people around us suddenly saw another human being who had a past, who had a history that was there. It was in there somewhere and she just loved when we sang. Actually most of those folks loved when we sang and I didn’t know a lot of the older songs that they knew, but, we had records and stuff that we had records… Oh God, I’m old.
Jim Donovan: I still call them records.
Colleen Cooke: Well that’s what they were, Jim, they were records. They were actual records.
Jim Donovan: They were round and you could hold them and scratch them. When she would sing, Naina would sing, were you able to find that she could speak a little while again, any other times? Do you remember?
Colleen Cooke: I don’t remember her doing that. But I do remember that one-
Jim Donovan: That one time.
Colleen Cooke: .. because it was so huge because of the detail of the brick road. She told me about the cobblestone brick road that she lived on up a hill. I think she might’ve told us about her house.
Jim Donovan: It sounds like Pittsburgh actually.
Colleen Cooke: I think she was from Pittsburgh.
Jim Donovan: There’s all kinds of emerging research about this where people are realizing that it’s an access point for someone to be able to be lucid for a while.
Colleen Cooke: You’ve probably seeing the video of Henry and music and memory, that’s a perfect-
Jim Donovan: Alive inside. If you want to see something that will just open your heart up, just search, “Alive Inside,” on YouTube and watch. There’s an African American gentleman named Henry, and just watch the video. It’s one of the best things you’ll ever see.
Colleen Cooke: Alive Inside, for sure.
Jim Donovan: Beautiful, beautiful stuff that they’re doing. How about with people with different mental illnesses? Do you have specific things that you do with them?
Colleen Cooke: I worked in an outpatient clinic for a while and got to do all kinds of really cool groups. One of the groups that I did was a writing group. I would put music on, well my personal favorite was, Pocketbook Cannon, and there was seashore in the back. The sea, the waves, it was very nice. It was soothing. It was something that I liked. I put that on and just other kinds of music without words and invited the consumers to write whatever they felt like writing. Some of the things that they wrote were just beautiful.
Colleen Cooke: One guy wrote about the alienation he felt because of having mental illness and he had schizophrenia and he self-medicated with alcohol, but he was able to articulate in a way that I think anybody could have understood what he was saying. I had people write about their depression about their voices and the alienation and the loneliness, a lot of loneliness.
Colleen Cooke: They would then read them out loud to the group if they wanted to. We actually, those who wanted to, I made many copies and we made them into a booklet. I didn’t look-
Jim Donovan: What a great idea…
Colleen Cooke: … for it, I was going to look for it to bring to you. It was a really nice… Nice is not a great word to describe it but it was a meaningful opportunity for them to self-express in a really safe environment and to have themselves heard at a really deeper level than they had been heard before.
Jim Donovan: I think it’s hard for a person, a typical person going through their typical day, listening to the podcast to imagine what it’s like to be secluded if they’re institutionalized, first of all, and then to be constantly medicated and really not actually knowing how I feel and then to maybe be depersonalized –
Colleen Cooke: Absolutely.
Jim Donovan: … where people see me as my illness and not as me. I love that they have opportunity to do something that was them, that’s very meaningful.
Colleen Cooke: They loved having an opportunity to do something that was them as well.
Jim Donovan: I bet.
Colleen Cooke: There’s a group of men that come to our clinic at Slippery Rock in the spring, they come twice a week. The seniors provide recreational therapy for them.
Jim Donovan: How cool.
Colleen Cooke: A lot of times, so they’ve done drumming with the men and they do, a lot of times they’ll do something that uses music, name that tune. They do name that tune and these guys are, I don’t know, late 40’s to 70 or 80, it depends on the group that’s there. They play the game, name that tune, but after every tune we either sing it all the words, everybody together or we talk about when that song was popular, what was going on in their lives.
Colleen Cooke: One of the things that seems to be really, not seems to be, one of the things that is really important to these men is that they get an opportunity to share their stories and have somebody really attend to them, really listen. That right there is all they need in that moment. Just somebody to listen to them. So cool.
Jim Donovan: Something so simple that’s so profound for a person.
Colleen Cooke: Yeah.
Jim Donovan: Excellent point.
Colleen Cooke: The music that we play, I tell the students: ”You’ve got to do ’60s, ’70s maybe early ’80s and so I know all those songs.”
Jim Donovan: Exactly.
Colleen Cooke: But it was a time that was important for folks. I is really, really fascinating to watch them come alive and talk about it.
Jim Donovan: It’s a large way that we identify ourselves is that music between 14 and 22. The students I have will come and say, “Oh, my mom loved you when…” Then I’m like, “When were you born? Oh, 2001. I was… That was last century.”
Colleen Cooke: Wait ‘til their parents are younger than you. That’s when it really gets scary.
Jim Donovan: I’m actually getting pretty close there.
Colleen Cooke: Getting there.
Jim Donovan: Well, Hey, before we go, I wanted to ask, you were telling me about a new project you’re thinking about you want to share anything about?
Colleen Cooke: Sure. I’m really excited about it and I think it’ll come to fruition this summer, I’m hoping. Because of the laughter work and the drumming work and the sound work and my focus on positive psychology and my getting ready for retirement, I want to do something that helps people a few years younger than me and a few years older than me transition into that time. It’s called, Laughter, Leisure and Loving Kindness.
Jim Donovan: Love it.
Colleen Cooke: Based on the idea that when we laugh together we like each other more. When we drum together, we build community and when we build community we can do kind things for one another. We’re going to do some of all of that and hopefully it’ll start in the summer at Ross Community Center.
Jim Donovan: I love that. I love that. Now I’ll put this information in the show notes, but just to say it out loud, how can people contact you if they want to ask you questions?
Colleen Cooke: My email address would be the best way and that is email@example.com. Slippery Rock University.
Jim Donovan: Colleen, thank you so much for taking the time. This is been more fun than I even hoped it would be. We’ll do it again sometime?
Colleen Cooke: Absolutely. I would love it. I think I have a lot more to tell you.
Jim Donovan: I think you do too. That’s why I’m sort of prompting it now like “I want to talk to this lady again. It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen.” Well, hey, thanks again and I appreciate all the work that you’re doing at the university.
Colleen Cooke: Thank you.
Jim Donovan: Please give everyone my very best. You guys do phenomenal work up there with those guys.
Colleen Cooke: Thank Jim. Thanks a lot.
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