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Laughter: The Best Medicine for Chelsea Handler

The comedian, author, and talk-show host talks love, laughter, loss, and her new book 'Uganda Be Kidding Me.'

Dealing With Shame

Sharing experiences publicly and through a comedic lens is therapeutic, says Mary Lamia, PhD. Lamia is a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA, and a clinical psychologist with a practice in nearby Kentfield.

"We all make mistakes and feel shame," she says. "But experiencing unrelenting shame is a dangerous emotion. It separates us from others and is the No. 1 cause of suicide. The antidote to shame is human connection. When we embrace the things that happen to us, we connect with other people. Acceptance from others is a form of healing."

That Handler critiques her history for laughs before a live audience is not lost on Lamia. "There are four clinical responses to shame," she says. "You can hide or withdraw. You can avoid, which is what drives substance abuse. You can attack others. Or you can attack yourself. When a comedian makes us laugh using shame, what she does is take those four responses and turn them around. Telling stories and using comedy to create pleasure in others is restorative. It's exactly what people do in self-help meetings or with their friends."

Anyone who follows Handler's writing knows she serves up self-mocking humor. How does she feel about goofing on other public figures, though? 

"People can say that I'm a bully. That's hardly how I look at it," she answers. "I think it's better to call people out on ridiculous behavior than to not say anything. I like people who have opinions. When I agreed to do my show, I said I'm not going to be a talk-show host who doesn't make fun of people who are making fools of themselves. It's not the most popular way of going about things. But it's certainly entertaining."

Using Laughter to Deal With Grief and Loss

The theory that many brilliant comics draw their humor from a well of sadness might be true in Handler's case. At age 10, she lost her oldest brother, Chet, when he fell off a cliff while hiking. His sudden death devastated her family and continues to affect its members, decades later. "I'm 40 now, and when people leave, I think, 'Are they going to die?'" she says.

When the star's mother went through the final stages of breast cancer in 2006, Handler felt that loss acutely, too. But, unlike when her brother passed away, she had time to process her grief.

"When my mom died, we had 6 months to a year to emotionally prepare for it," she explains. "It was so sad, but not as hard. I think the things you don't recover from are the things you have no warning for."

"Sudden loss is unfinished business," agrees Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, professor of gerontology at the graduate school of The College of New Rochelle.. "But one isn't easier than the other. The loss of a younger person leaves unanswered questions. Was it preventable? There may be guilt, anger, and plenty of 'if only's.'"

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