The Pentagon is taking the old adage "laughter is the best medicine" to heart as a way to help families cope with the stress of loved ones deployed overseas.
For almost three years, retired Army Col. James L. "Scottie" Scott has been on a personal crusade to spread "laughter therapy" as a tool for National Guard and Army Reserve families to deal with deployments.
"It's so terrific," says Scott. "You can't think about anything else when you're laughing which is why it's such a natural stress management tool that totally clears stress."
Besides, he adds, it "requires no special equipment."
Calling himself "the laughing colonel from the Pentagon," Scott has helped several state National Guards incorporate laughter therapy into "family readiness groups," the support networks the military uses to help the families of deployed troops.
For Scott, the therapy is "a perfect opportunity for military families who face so many challenges, whether they're deployed or not, and gives them the opportunity to step back and realize it's not the end of the world and life's going to go on."
Scott is the originator of this unofficial National Guard and Reserve program, which the Pentagon supports, but does not fund. Individual states pick up the training costs if they decide to pursue the therapy. Still, Scott believes the military and military families have gotten the message that the resource is available to them.
In his day job as director of the Reserve Family Support Programs, Scott regularly visits different bases across the country. As part of his initial presentation on improving the support groups, Scott mentions laughter therapy as a useful tool and offers his expertise. Interested states invite him back to lead two-day workshops.
Becoming a Certified Laughter Leader
Some of these participants end up receiving more advanced courses from the World Laughter Tour to become "certified laughter leaders," with their state's National Guard picking up the cost.
Scott first became interested in laughter therapy in 2002 when a "certified laughter leader" at a National Guard conference had the audience howling for an hour and suggested laughter therapy as a way of helping military support groups. Intrigued, Scott did a little research and became hooked.
He received permission to take academic classes for credit offered by the World Laughter Tour at the University of Ohio and got the Pentagon to pay for his course load. After a few months training he was certified as a "laughter trainer."
Laughter therapy doesn't involve jokes, stand-up routines or humor. Instead, it involves getting participants to engage in exercises to get them laughing. "We encourage everyone to participate to the maximum of their ability and give everyone permission in the group to laugh with each other and not at each other," he says.
Scott gets his classes going by having his groups repeat, "Ho-ho-ha-ha!" From there, it's on to exercises like "ants in your pants," "hot sand on the beach" and "rollercoaster" to get them laughing and start those therapeutic juices flowing. Says Scott, "When you think about laughing there's a lot of abdominal activity... It's like an internal massage." Other sessions will find participants walking like penguins or roaring like lions to get them howling.
Invariably, there's always one "laughter casualty" in the group, the one person who ends up laughing so uncontrollably they can't participate further. Scott recommends these folks take a breather before coming back to the funfest and tells them not to worry about it because "it's a natural thing -- they won't die laughing."
Since receiving his training three years ago, Scott has trained about two dozen military officers, family support staffers and volunteers who've gone on to set up programs in their home states and make the therapy regularly available to military families in their area.
The end results are "laughter clubs," which meet weekly. There are now clubs in New Mexico, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Montana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Wisconsin.
Most importantly, the "laughing colonel" encourages participants to use the therapy on their own when they feel the need. "One of the best things one can do in the morning is make the person in the mirror laugh and start the day off in a positive mood," he says. "What a tremendous gift to come out to the world happy."