Breathing is the only function of the autonomic nervous system that can be consciously regulated or changed. It encourages deep diaphragmatic breathing, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the cooling branch of the autonomic nervous system and is the opposite of the sympathetic stress arousal system. This helps in relaxing the aroused state of a person and provides a sense of calmness.
Laughter tends to reduce sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity while engendering softening, expanding, and relaxing parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity.
One possible explanation for increased PNS activity is that the diaphragmatic movements induced by laughter help improve the cardiac vagal tone (which reflects how much your heart rate is influenced by your breathing.)
Low vagal tone has been linked to chronic inflammation throughout the body, which is a known risk factor for heart failure, stroke, and diabetes.
Not only does laughter help prevent SNS activity by assuaging emotional stress, but it also helps discharge aggressive, negative energy trapped as tension within the body as a result of past SNS over-activity.
The research is very clear that breathing exercises can enhance parasympathetic tone, decrease sympathetic nervous activity, improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, decrease the effects of stress, and improve physical and mental health (Pal, Velkumary, and Madanmohan, 2004).
…and what do you do in Laughter Wellness and Laughter Yoga sessions? You breathe to the top of your (comfortable) capacity, thereby enriching the blood with ample supplies of oxygen, the lifeline of our system (and it is so much fun!)
More laughter = less pain
We all face pain in our lives. This may come in the form of physical or psychological illness, financial or family problems. When a problem is acute, it can take over our lives and bring us down emotionally, leaving us with no energy or hope.
Laughter is now respectfully regarded as the most easily accessible analgesic for pain, and we understand the neurochemistry of how this is achieved.
Endogenous opioids are released when we laugh. Opioids bind to central nervous system opiate receptors and naturally produce some of the pharmacological properties of powerful drugs like morphine, without the dangerous side effects of plant-produced opiates. Other instances when opioids are released include when we are happy with a positive self-image or exercise vigorously (the “runner’s high” or the “dancer’s high”).
Note: Opioid peptides (opioids) are a group of endogenous (internally produced) neural polypeptides – amino acid chains such as endorphins and enkephalins.
The largest concentration of opioid receptors is in the frontal lobe of our brain, which significantly influences human cognitive processes, including self-image, creativity, self-actualization, romance and interpersonal bonding. Adrenaline and improved cardiovascular circulation enhance the effect of opioids, which helps us understand why boisterous prolonged physical laughter as provided in Laughter Wellness and Laughter Yoga sessions are more effective than passively watching The Comedy Channel.
Laughter may also break the pain-spasm cycle common to some muscle disorders. It helps people forget about pain. Studies show that children watching comedy films tolerate pain more easily. Researchers at UCLA did a study that showed that watching funny shows on TV improved children’s toleranc e for pain2.
In a study of 35 patients in a rehabilitation hospital, 74% agreed with the statement, “Sometimes laughing works as well as a pain pill.” These patients had a broad range of conditions, such as spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, arthritis, limb amputations, and other neurological or musculoskeletal disorders.
A laughter/pain case study
Norman Cousins was diagnosed in 1964 with ankylosing spondylitis (a degenerative disease causing the breakdown of collagen), which left him in almost constant pain and motivated his doctor to say he would die within a few months (He died in 1990). He disagreed and reasoned that if stress had somehow contributed to his illness (he was not sick before the trip to Russia), then positive emotions should help him feel better. With his doctors’ consent, he checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel across the street and began taking extremely high doses of vitamin C while exposing himself to a continuous stream of humorous films and similar “laughing matter”. He later claimed that 10 minutes of belly rippling laughter would give him two hours of pain-free sleep, when nothing else, not even morphine could help him. His condition steadily improved and he slowly regained the use of his limbs. Within six months he was back on his feet, and within two years he was able to return to his full-time job at the Saturday Review. His story baffled the scientific community and inspired a number of research projects. Read more.
Laughter increased pain tolerance and discomfort thresholds:
- DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1373, 2011: Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold.
- Van Zandt S, LaFont C. Can a laugh a day keep the doctor away? J Pract Nurs. 1985;35 (3):32-35.
- Cogan R, Cogan D, Waltz W, McCue M. Effects of laughter and relaxation on discomfort thresholds. J Behav Med. 1987;10 (2):139-144.
- Hudak DA, Dale JA, Hudak MA, DeGood DE. Effects of humorous stimuli and sense of humor on discomfort. Psychol Rep. 1991;69 (3 Pt 1):779-786.
- Nevo 0, Keinan G, Teshimovsky-Arditi M. Humor and pain tolerance. Humor. 1993;6 (1):71-88.
- Rotton J, Shats M. Effects of state humor, expectancies, and choice on postsurgical mood and self-medication: a field experiment. J Appl Social Psychol. 1996;26 (20):1775-1794.
- Weisenberg M, Raz T, Hener T. The influence of film-induced mood on pain perception. Pain. 1998;76 (3):365-375.
- Zweyer K, Velker B, Ruch W. Do cheerfulness, exhilaration, and humor production moderate pain tolerance? A FACS study. Humor. 2004;17 (1-2):85-119.
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