Jul. 01, 2012

Simply Silly: Why Goofing Off Is Good for You

By Heather Boerner

As a professionally trained dancer, Jana Eshaghian, 48, of Los Angeles has always felt more alive when she moved. But when she was diagnosed with lupus in 2005, she found herself trapped in a body that could barely walk, let alone dance, for close to three years.

“But in my mind, I never stopped dancing,” she says.

The Play’s the Thing

At the time, Eshaghian couldn’t even manage to do the dishes because she was in a wheelchair due to joint pain, fatigue, pericarditis, and low hemoglobin. So the family—which includes husband, George, and daughters Hannah, 16, and Sarah, 18—got creative. Post-dinner cleanup turned into “a party in the kitchen,” says Sarah Eshaghian.

“It’s a pretty funny thing to see, actually,” Sarah says. “I’m in my sweatpants and slippers, everyone’s exhausted from their day, and we’re dancing ridiculously with rubber gloves on and dishes in hand and putting mustard in the fridge. Plus, we’re singing—and no one is a particularly good singer.”

At first, the most Eshaghian could do was be the DJ, working the iPod and choosing songs, often fun ones by the Spice Girls and ABBA, the ’70s band from Sweden.  She had to learn a new way of playing—something common for people with lupus, says psychologist Robert H. Phillips, Ph.D., founder and director of the Hicksville, NY, Center for Coping.

“Just because you can’t do the fun things you used to do doesn’t mean you can’t do anything fun,” says Phillips. “Maybe try to think of something less physically active, more cerebral.”

Eshaghian admits that finding fun when she couldn’t dance was a big challenge. But she did it.

Gradually, with help from doctors and hard work on her part toward more mobility, she found herself off the kitchen chair and boogying with her daughters, often to the hip hop song, “Low.”

As Flo Rida sings, “She hit the flo’/Next thing you know/Shawty got low low low low low low,” Eshaghian mugs for her daughters and bends her knees and feels her stiff joints ease, her muscles stretch, and the synovial fluid circulate. And, well, she tries to get low.

“I get a little low,” she jokes. “It’s fun, so silly. It’s like I can remember what my body was like and I can feel it. I know it’s still in there, that I’m not just this disabled person. I’m all me.”

Play On!

Yet, playing is more than just goofing around. It’s woven into our genes and our brains, says Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, CA.

“The impulse to play comes out of our brain stem and limbic system and crafts the brains of all social mammals,” he says. “It makes us flexible under stress [and] is key to our ability to adapt as a species.”

Indeed, animal and human studies have found that play bolsters the immune system, reducing blood pressure and making people more resilient. While most research is on children, there is evidence that play is as important for healthy adults and those with chronic illnesses as it is for children, says Phillips.

“One of the most important components in successfully coping with a chronic illness is a positive mental attitude,” says Phillips, author of Coping With Lupus. “It’s hard to have that when you’re in pain or fatigued, but you can find something you can do that’s playful that’s commensurate with your ability level. It helps the state of your mind and body. It lightens things up. It helps you see things in a different perspective, one that’s more hopeful.”

There are lots of ways to play and be silly. Most of us remember doing somersaults or playing sports as kids—physical activities. But there are many more kinds of play, says Brown: There’s imaginative play—‘playing house’—and verbal play, like witty banter. There’s transformative play that happens when we’re ‘in the zone’ at work or on a creative project. And then, of course, there’s social play, which solidifies bonds with others.

There’s even the solitary form of play. In short, adds Brown, “Anything where you look ridiculous, and you aren’t doing it to perform for someone else, creates what I call ‘a state of play,’ and it’s good for you.”

Playing and being silly can have deeper meanings and, sometimes, a profound impact on people with lupus.

The Game’s Afoot

Terrence Williams met his future fiancée, Jennifer Tyrell-Smith, in a high school biology class in 2003. She was hunkered down at her desk, engaged in an arm wrestling match. With a boy. When it was over, Tyrell-Smith had won, and the boys were teasing each other about getting beat by a girl. Williams, 25, still remembers the broad smile on Tyrell-Smith’s face.

Tyrell-Smith loves to spend time outside, in her garden, or with her Australian shepherd mix, Ajax. She refuses to let her lupus diagnosis in 2009 stop her from following Ajax up over a climbing gym at a local park, winding through slides and other obstacles, or dangling her feet from the jungle gym and creating patterns in the sand with her feet. She has also been known to get down on the floor in her living room and play tug-of-war with Ajax.

She and Williams, who proposed to her in 2011, sometimes buy a kite and run outside to fly it. Other times, they find a new board game and crack it open when they get home. When she hangs out with her friends, she makes jokes about everything, including the side effects of her medications, saying she should take advantage of the weight gain that comes with taking prednisone by hitting a buffet. When she gets hour-long infusions of the lupus drug Benlysta®, she and Williams engage in increasingly competitive games of Uno®.

“He’s winning right now,” quips Tyrell-Smith, “but I’ll win eventually.”

Lupus does change things, of course. There are days when Williams can tell Tyrell-Smith is severely fatigued and has a bad headache. She tries to hide it, but her strained smile and stiff way of holding her body give it away.

Yet everything changes when she’s having fun. Her smile is relaxed, reminding Williams of that day he met her all those years ago. You can tell, he says, that “she knows she’s feeling good and is not taking it for granted.”

Something does change for her when she’s being goofy, she says. “I almost forget I have this disease because I’m having so much fun,” she says.

Indeed, there’s some evidence that animals and people in play feel less pain, says Phillips. That doesn’t mean the pain is in your head. It means pain is made up of physical and psychological components.

“There may not be as much we can do about the physical pain, but by being playful and focusing on fun things, you can address the psychological pain, and the overall net result is less pain,” says Phillips. “Instead of saying, ‘I can’t do this because I’m in pain,’ consider saying, ‘Let me see if I can do this, and maybe it will even help my pain.’”

It’s no wonder, then, that Tyrell-Smith is always looking for a way to squeeze in silliness. Take, for instance, the day she snuck into Williams’ work with her best friend. Moving quietly, but with a giddy smile, she sighted him. And then it was on.

“They sprayed me with Silly String®,” Williams recalls. “They just sprayed me and ran off.”

After a pause, he adds, “It was random!”

When Being Silly Is a Lifeline

When Carole-Anne Diamond met Danielle Piñol in 2002, Diamond was 12 and newly diagnosed with lupus. Self-conscious because she didn’t know anyone at Camp Sunshine—which caters to children with life-threatening illnesses—Diamond was also adjusting to the fact that prednisone had caused her to gain weight. Naturally bookish, she’s not the type to approach strangers on her own.

“On the first day, Danielle came up and talked to me,” recalls Diamond, now 23 and living in West Babylon, NY. Piñol was diagnosed with lupus the year before, at age 12, and from then on, Diamond learned that “Danielle could take any situation and turn it around and make people enjoy themselves.”

That’s not to say that Diamond’s more solitary activities, like the books she carries with her everywhere, don’t count as fun. But still, when she thinks of doing things like karaoke, she concludes, “It would be more fun if Danielle were around.”

The fact is that play, like a bad mood, is catching, says Brown. “There’s a contagion about play,” he says. “You know it when you see it.”

So when the girls are in a bad mood—when one or both are in a flare, suffering from migraines, fever, or severe fatigue, or when the stress of everyday life gets them down—they know how to perk one another up. They send “random text messages,” reminding one another of a time that had them howling, like when they were shopping and Piñol tried on banana yellow pants and the most neon purple shirt she could find. They were doubled over in the dressing room—and they could laugh at it anew.

“With her, I definitely find myself laughing more,” says Diamond. “She’s really taught me to try to be as crazy as you want to, even if someone is watching. It makes you feel better, and that’s really what matters.”

So it should be no surprise that Piñol uses fun in all manner of situations: She’ll calm a room full of fellow service fraternity members by crawling into the middle of it and pretending to meditate and chant. She’ll attempt to conquer Super Mario Galaxy, a Nintendo Wii game, or try to trounce friends at the “Scene It? Disney” trivia game. She’ll paint her face with swirling, glittered designs meant to emulate a fairy and head to the beach—the list goes on.

But underneath it all, Piñol is clear on one thing that Brown says is the core of play: It’s not superfluous. “The drive to play is fundamental to our survival,” Brown says. “The impulse helps all social animals, and our species in particular, to adapt to changing environments and prepare for the unexpected.”

Piñol would put it a little bit differently.

“If I didn’t do these things to have fun, I’d go crazy,” she says. “I wouldn’t have any sort of well-functioning life.”

So expect to see Piñol serious when she’s in law school and at work. But on her free time, don’t expect the silly texts, face painting, or games to go away anytime soon. For her, they’re life’s blood.

It’s the same for Jana Eshaghian, who has found that the most effective medicine for a lupus flare is a little-known treatment called simply “Snake Face.” She hides behind a door or wall in her Los Angeles home. When one of her daughters happens by, she leaps out with an attitude.

“It’s my mother’s interpretation of a cobra about to pounce,” says daughter Sarah, laughing. “She scrunches up her face and makes little hand movements, even though cobras don’t have paws, and opens her mouth really wide. When she opens her mouth, I swear I can see fangs.”

It’s the jump, start, and giggle she gets from her kids that makes it fun, says Eshaghian. Snake Face is silly, of course. That’s the whole point. And when she does it, she’s not thinking about lupus.


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