Laughing all the Way

In our therapeutic groups at Welwynn Outpatient Center, emotional expression covers the range of human possibility. Clients are finally facing family issues, anxiety, depression, and trauma with a sober mind… and it is not easy. There are tears for regret, loss, and hopelessness. There are silences to “be with” the hard feelings present in the room. There are heartfelt expressions of empathy and support… And to top it off, there’s lots of laughter! Our group provides powerful medicine for coming face to face with suffering – one of the main challenges of addiction recovery.

Sigmund Freud developed the famous concept of defense mechanisms: “unconscious psychological mechanisms that reduce anxiety arising from unacceptable or potentially harmful stimuli” (Wikipedia). Later theorists categorized the defense mechanisms by level of sophistication. I’ve listed some of the more familiar ones here in their categories: “Immature” defense mechanisms include fantasy, projection, and passive aggression. “Neurotic” defense mechanisms include intellectualization, dissociation, and repression. “Mature” defense mechanisms include altruism, sublimation, and humor.

Our groups actively promote mature ways of dealing with the unwelcome aspects of clients’ lives. Clients are given the opportunity to practice altruism by supporting other group members through attentive listening and empathic feedback. Sublimation means to turn difficult feelings into a socially acceptable form— the arts being the most common example. To start group, I’ll often play a song which exemplifies the sublimation of difficult feelings into inspiring and uplifting art. Here are some songs that we have used in group so far:

  • Eastern Sun by Ayla Nereo – a beautiful prayer asking for renewal by the sun.
  • Chico Revival by Mamuse – a catchy tune looking back on darker times from a bright present.
  • Wavin’ Flag by K’Naan – a triumphantly optimistic song about a better future.

Humor is definitely the most fun way to cope with challenging times, and when not used exclusively or in excess, can be one of the healthier ways. We’ve make up skits to do for the CEO of the company and we’ve develop inside jokes. Some clients are as skillful as comedians, and shyer ones take the risk to express themselves eventually. One client remarked after the group, “it’s good that we are laughing here, I know that most of us aren’t laughing at home.” It’s true. Many families are barely holding together, suffering from high levels of contempt and resentment which make communication challenging. We work on communication skills and understanding family dynamics in group, and it sure does help to approach that work with a lighter mood and a feeling of camaraderie.

Humans are not designed to completely self-regulate emotionally. We are social creatures meant to bring each other into balance. This is part of why Group Therapy can be so effective for addiction: It restores a damaged capacity to be in healthy relationships, and it can be fun too!

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