This article explores the why and proposes a simple how to manage stress. Stress is a well-known slow killer, is rampant in our society, and is very expensive on all levels. Its mechanisms are complex. It impacts everybody differently, but its end-result is easy to observe and explain. It creates havoc in the human body, leads to depression, kills creativity, isolates people when they most need social connections and slowly destroys one’s self-esteem. Stress cannot be ignored.
What’s the solution? Let’s keep it sweet and simple, just like laughter.
Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War
Simple Safe and Stimulating Ways To Manage Stress With Laughter
…Because Laughter Is A Healthy Way To Handle Stress
Laughter triggers the release of a cocktail of happy chemicals that boosts the immune responses, particularly components related to anti-viral and anti-tumor defenses. This cocktail includes NK cells, endorphins, serotonin, growth hormone, interferon-gamma (IFN) and a host of other beneficial substances produced naturally every time we laugh heartily for extended periods.
Laughter diminishes the secretion of cortisol and epinephrine, while enhancing immune reactivity.
Laughter boosts secretion of growth hormone, an enhancer of key immune responses.
Laughing leads to the release of endorphins, a self-manufactured natural opiate that has been scientifically shown to carry messages of attachment and bonding (the scientific terms for love), and to stimulate feelings of caring and forgiveness in addition to acting as a natural painkiller. Endorphins create a positive state of mind and boost optimism, self-confidence and feelings of self-worth.
By enhancing the free flow of emotions, laughter can help dislodge blocked emotions stored in the body. Suppressed or blocked emotions can cause ongoing physical, mental and emotional problems and stress. Their release can be life-changing. Laughter provides an excellent non-violent method for emotional release and catharsis.
Laughter stimulates circulation and aids muscle relaxation, both of which help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.
Expect to be far less tense and anxious after a Laughter Wellness or Laughter Yoga session! By increasing endorphins (hormones which assuage the sympathetic nervous system) laughter facilitates a state of peace in the body.
Laughter is a natural antidote to many of the illness-causing effects of stress.
Definition of stress
In a medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). According to psychologists at the Mayo Clinic, typical stress symptoms include:
A negative state of mind with a cynical, sarcastic and critical outlook;
Changes in sleep and appetite habits;
Headaches, neck and lower back pain;
Irritability and lack of patience;
Lack of energy;
Lack of motivation;
Lack of productivity and efficiency;
Lack of satisfaction with one’s own life and personal achievements;
Loss of the ability to experience joy;
Self-medication using food, alcohol and drugs to feel better or to not feel;
The feeling of facing insurmountable barriers.
When the body is under deep stress, it releases a hormone called cortisol that has a profound impact on your health because it directly suppresses the immune system. This makes a stressed person more vulnerable to attack from bacteria and viruses and can cause anything from generally feeling run down to full-blown flu and heart attacks.
Laughter is nature’s counter to bad stress
Laughter is the #1 natural enemy of bad stress because they are physiological opposites. The predominance of one tends to prevent the other. A clue to this may be found in the body’s typical actions after extreme stress of the fight or flight kind: deep panting (all relaxation response are exhalation based) and using laughter to make light of events that provoked fear. The predominance of one (deeper breathing and laughter) tends to prevent the other (fear).
Laughter helps improve the cardiac vagal tone, which reflects how much your heart rate is influenced by your breathing. It’s an indication of your body’s capacity to regain calm after you’ve been in a stressful situation. Low vagal tone has been linked to chronic inflammation throughout the body, which is a known risk factor for heart failure, stroke and diabetes. Research suggests that the more positive social connections people had over a nine week period, the more their vagal tone increased.
It’s interesting to note that laughter has lasting effects:
“Our findings show that the physiological effects of a single one-hour session viewing a humorous video appear to last anywhere from 12 to 24 hours in different individuals. This leads us to believe that by seeking out positive experiences that make us laugh we can do a lot with our physiology to stay well.” ─ Lee Berk, DrPH, Assoc Res Pro Loma Linda School of Medicine
Stress Management and Health: The Difference Between Eustress and Bad Stress
Laughter is a form of good stress, known as eustress. (Eustress is a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye. It is defined as stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfillment or other positive feelings.)
Life is all about the balance of tension and relaxation. We need tension to stand erect, move, do anything. If we didn’t resist our own movement each time we drank a cup of water, the cup would crash into our face. Life, therefore, is also all about balance, or rather learning to be balanced in our thoughts and actions. Just like we must learn to fine-tune the push and pull forces in all of our movements to perform smooth actions, we must also learn to relax and slow down (or engage and speed up, depending) in our daily life. If we don’t, the tensions we naturally experience will escalate and create pain.
Therefore, pain, anxiety and stress have an important role to play in our lives. They are the voice of the body calling for attention, saying that something is out of balance.
Eastern wisdom says that any pain, anxiety or stress that prompts us to take action is good. Otherwise it’s just a waste of time and energy, because it’s like sitting on a rocking chair. One gets the illusion of movement, but he or she won’t be going anywhere.
Laughter allows us to vocalize our aches and pains in a positive manner without having to verbalize anything. There is no need to explain why we are laughing.
Laughter reduces stress levels quickly and naturally and provides new ways of dealing with stress, which can lead to long-term stress reduction. By providing a new mental perspective, choosing to laugh often converts the perceptions of problems that were seen as huge to minor irritations.
Use Laughter To Reduce Stress, Recharge Your Emotional Battery
”Anger and anxiety are energy-sapping emotions,” explains humor expert Paul McGhee. “If your job causes you stress day after day, week after week, the anger, anxiety and depression you live with drains the energy you need to provide quality work. It also lowers your morale and job satisfaction, and sets you up for burnout.”
Laughter on the other hand relieves tension and is a big revitalizer.
Dr. Travis Stork confirms saying, “Laughing can be one of the best and easiest ways to boost your energy throughout the day.”
Indeed. Laughter recharges your batteries by enriching the blood with ample supplies of oxygen, the lifeline of our system, and cutting through energy-sapping emotions and replacing them with energizing emotions. It fights burnout by giving you back the energy you’re supposed to have, and by making your life and work more enjoyable.
Laughter is an excellent natural way to provide violent-free emotional release through catharsis. It also provides new ways to deal with these strong emotions in a healthy, non-violent and non-confrontational way.
Importance of the hypothalamus
The hypothalamus resides deep in center at base of the brain stem and is the interpreter that activates messages sent to the endocrine system from the nervous system. The hypothalamus is part of the brain not protected by the blood brain barrier. This allows it to monitor what is going on in the blood. It sends messages to the endocrine glands to regulate the activities of the organs and control such levels as hormone production hunger, thrust and temperature.
The hypothalamus is very affected by everything we consume both beneficial and toxic. The hypothalamus is also linked to emotions like anxiety and fear, and the effect of these emotions on blood pressure, heart rate and breathing. Continuous emotional stress may weaken the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus works very closely with the pituitary gland sending it messages that regulate hormone production.
Laughter is the best medicine for reducing stress hormones produced in the hypothalamus section of the brain, lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of heart attack and stroke. Significant reductions can occur in minutes and, as seen earlier, last for days. It affects the brain cognitively, increasing your intelligence, improving you memory and ability to process information.
Laughter as a coping mechanism and great neutralizer
Laughter can be used as a coping mechanism when one is upset, angry or sad. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. Laughter lightens your burdens, inspires hopes, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded, focused, and alert. It may also be a good way for people to relax because muscle tension is reduced after laughing.
Being a great neutralizer, laughter can dissipate frustrations and help you reframe a situation, thus fostering a more positive outlook. In times of difficulty, laughter counteracts negative feelings of anger, frustration, or helplessness. It is shown that it actually breaks the pain cycle, gives comfort, restores energy, and can give you hope to keep fighting if you are battling an illness or depression. Laugher can be a great coping mechanism or temporary escape.
In Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, describes research that he and George Bonanno, professor of education and psychology at Columbia University in New York City, conducted to answer the question, “What allows people to adjust to life-altering traumas?” They interviewed 45 adults who had watched their spouses die six months earlier. Keltner and Bonanno wanted to determine which emotions predicted a healthy adjustment to loss in these survivors. They assessed anxiety, depression and protracted grief in the months and years following the loss. As Keltner describes in his book, he and Bonanno found the widows and widowers who smiled and laughed when they talked about their deceased spouses during the initial interviews experienced less grief six, 14 and 25 months later.
Keltner and Bonanno also checked for a correlation with elevated heart rates, a sign of emotional arousal, in their grieving subjects during interviews about their dead spouses. Both laughers and non-laughers had higher heart rates. The non-laughers, though, also displayed increased emotional distress, while the laughers’ heart rate elevations weren’t linked to emotional distress. This led Keltner and Bonanno to conclude that laughter gave these people a brief “vacation” from mourning, helping them separate the emotional and physiological components of grief. “What it’s telling us,” says Keltner, “is that laughter is this little trap door that allows you to escape from the toxic stress.”
Laughter also helps to release unhealthy inhibitions. It brings you to a place where you can set aside your fear of holding back. Choose to laugh at a situation now instead of years down the road. In many instances it is only the passage of time that makes something turn from unpleasant or embarrassing to hilarious.
Relevant studies on laughter and stress
After watching a comic film, laughter reduced serum cortisol levels, increased salivary chromogranin A (CgA) levels, and increased ordinary excretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Berk LS, Felten DL, Tan SA, Bittman BB, Westengard J. Modulation of neuroimmune parameters during the eustress of humor-associated mirthful laughter. Altern Ther Health Med. 2001;7 (2):62-72, 74-76.
Berk LS, Tan SA, Fry WF, e al. Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. Am J Med Sci. 1989;298 (6):390-396.
Berk LS, Tan SA, Nehlsen-Cannarella SL, et al. Humor associated laughter decreases cortisol and increases spontaneous lymphocyte blastogenesis. Clin Res. 1988;36:435A.
Toda M, Kusakabe S, Nagasawa S, Kitamura K, Morimoto K. Effect of laughter on endocrinological stress marker chromogranin A. Biomed Res. 2007;28 (2):115-118.
Levi L. The urinary output of adrenalin and noradrenalin during pleasant and unpleasant emotional states: a preliminary report.Psychosom Med. 1965 Jan-Feb; 27:80-85.
Behavior of perceptual anticipation of mirthful laughter decreased serum cortisol, epinephrine, and dopac. Berk LS, Tan SA, Berk D. Cortisol and catecholamine stress hormone decrease is associated with the behavior of perceptual anticipation of mirthful laughter [abstract]. FASEB J. 2008;22 (Meeting abstracts):946.11.
Humor desensitization reduced fear as effectively as traditional techniques. Ventis WL, Higbee G, Murdock SA. Using humor in systematic desensitization to reduce fear. J Gen Psychol. 2001;128 (2):241-253.
Laughter elevated breast-milk melatonin in both healthy and atopic eczema mothers. Kimata H. Laughter elevates the levels of breast-milk melatonin. J Psychosom Res. 2007;62 (6):699-702.
Laughter increased beta-endorphins and human growth hormones (HGH). Berk LS, Tan SA. [beta]-endorphin and HGH increase are associated with both the anticipation and experience of mirthful laughter [abstract], FASEB J. 2006;20 (4):A382.
Laughter may help dissipate tension, fear and frustration. Robinson V. The purpose and function of humor in OR nursing. Today’s OR Nurse. 1993;15 (6):7-12.
Laughter may reduce stress and improve NK cell activity. The Effect of Mirthful Laughter on Stress and Natural Killer Cell Activity, Mary P. Bennett, DNSc, RN, Janice M. Zeller, PhD, RN, FAAN, Lisa Rosenberg, PhD, RN, Judith McCann, DNSc, RN, Alt Ther, Mar/Apr 2003, Vol. 9, No. 2.
Laughter moderated stress or anxiety in healthy adults.
Yovetich NA, Dale JA, Hudak MA. Benefits of humor in reduction of threat-induced anxiety. Psychol Rep. 1990;66 (1);51-58.
Moore DB. Make them laugh. Therapeutic humor for patients with grief-related stress or anxiety. Adv Nurse Pract. 2000;8 (8):34-37.
Periods of intense laughter are followed by relaxed muscle tone or H-reflex depression.
Paskind HA. Effects of laughter on muscle tone. Arch Neurol Psychiatry 1932;28 (3):623-628.
Overeem S, Taal W, Ocal Gezici E, Lammers G, Van Dijk J. Is motor inhibition during laughter due to emotional respiratory influences? Psychophysiology. 2004;41 (2):254-258.
Sebastian Gendry is a French-American laughter and wellness expert with a passion for emotional literacy. He is the creator of the laughter wellness method and founder of the Laughter Online University. He has appeared in 100+ newspapers and magazines and two TEDx talks, as well as major TV shows, including the Oprah Winfrey Show, 60 minutes and ABC Good Morning America. His life mission is to create a happier planet. He teaches and advocates for sound, simple and stimulating self-care practices enriched with the cheerful, curative and centering impact of positive energies.
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