By Judith Woodward, Registered Nurse, Health Promotion Officer, U.S. Army Public Health CommandNovember 1, 2013
Depression is one of the most common medical conditions. It can affect anyone at any time. This year, the Army is joining organizations and communities across the nation to raise awareness about the dangers of depression. The Army's theme, "The Courage to Seek Help," emphasizes that depression is one of the most treatable behavioral health conditions. Getting an early diagnosis and treatment may help reduce the intensity and duration of depression symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in 10 Americans report depression. This means that every year more than 31 million Americans say they suffer from depression. It can affect men, women, the elderly and even children.
When you hear about depression, you may think to yourself, "I don't know anyone who is depressed. I will never be depressed. No one around me will ever be depressed. No one I care about will be impacted by depression."
According to the figures above, though, your spouse, mother, sister, child, grandparent--or even you--could become depressed. In addition, depression affects not only the individual who is depressed, but can impact families, friends and coworkers.
It may be hard to believe, but one of the most effective ways to help yourself or someone you love with depression is with laughter. Laughter is such a powerful, inexpensive and dependable tool that is always available. Did you know that laughter can ease stress, pain and sadness? There are many other ways laughter is good for your health:
• Laughter helps make you happy. Laughter increases the release of endorphins, which are the body's feel-good chemicals that make you feel well and can even relieve pain.
• Laughter helps you relax. The harder you laugh the more muscles you use in your face, arms, legs and stomach. Using these large muscle groups increases oxygen flow, so that your muscles relax more efficiently.
• Laughter helps you stay healthy. Laughter decreases stress hormones, helps protect you against infections like a cold or the flu, and increases your ability to fight off infections.
• Laughter makes you smarter. OK, laughter cannot really make you smarter, but it can boost your memory and learning ability by increasing important brain activity in your cerebral cortex, which controls your higher functioning (now you are smarter, right?!).
Consider some ways you can incorporate laughter into your life. The simplest way is to start with a smile--a smile is the beginning of laughter, and it is contagious. Another easy way to start on your path to laughter is to simply make a list of things you are happy about in your life. Another simple idea is to surround yourself with people who laugh and are playful. If you hear laughter, move towards it--most often, people are happy to share what they are laughing about because it gives them the opportunity to laugh again.
Some events are clearly not occasions for laughter, but most life events do not push you towards either laughter or sadness. Most events fall into the in-between place of simple, ordinary life--this gives you the choice to be sad, or the choice to laugh. Although studies do not show that laughter adds years to your life, there is evidence that laughter will add life to your years!
For those who feel they need more than laughter to deal with depression, primary care or behavioral healthcare providers can provide screening and care. The Department of Defense also offers anonymous behavioral health assessments for Soldiers, family members and civilians 24 hours a day, seven days a week, online at www.militarymentalhealth.org.