Laughter for stress management
Is laughter truly the best medicine? Maybe not, but it definitely offers plenty of health benefits, including helping us to reduce stress. In fact, there are practitioners who even specialize in offering humor therapy, also called laughter therapy.
But you most likely don't need a laugh coach to get those results. In fact, you may not even have to laugh out loud: researchers have found that simply smiling, anticipating a laugh or even pretending to be happy can confer some of the same benefits as laughter itself.
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How laughter changes us
When you laugh, it affects you both mentally and physically. Laughter increases your oxygen intake, stimulates certain organs and muscles and increases the amount of endorphins (feel good chemicals) released by your body. It activates your stress response and then brings it back to normal, with relaxation as the end result. Plus, it can boost circulation and help with muscle relaxation, both of which help soothe tension.
Laughter has been linked with many physical and mental benefits including:
- Enhance the immune systems
- Reduce pain (laughter causes the body to produce endorphins, its own painkillers)
- Increase problem-solving ability
- Increase breathing rate and blood oxygen levels
- Increase heart rate and balance blood pressure
- Aid digestion
- Elevate mood
- Effect hormones and brain activity
- Reduce anxiety, depression and tension
- Promote relaxation and ability to sleep
- Increase self-esteem and resilience
- Increase hope, optimism, energy and vigor
- Improve bonding with friends and family
- Improve mental function (memory, creativity)
Perhaps the only possible side-effect of seeing the lighter side of things is if it enables you to ignore difficult tasks and avoid making difficult decisions.
Resources for humor
Perhaps one of the most famous instances of using humor as a therapy came from Dr. Norman Cousins in his timeless classic, Anatomy of an Illness. While hospitalized with debilitating ankylosing spondylitis, he noticed that his condition deteriorating under what he saw as depressing hospital conditions. In order to combat this, he has himself moved to a hotel room where, among other things, he immersed himself in watching funny movies. He felt this was an important factor in his eventual recovery. The history of "humor as medicine" goes back at least as far back as the book of Proverbs in the bible: "A merry heart doeth good [like] a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones."
At a loss for where to find humor, silliness or absurdity in your life? Researchers have actually defined two broad areas for you to investigate:
Spontaneous (unplanned) Humor:
- finding humor in everyday situations
- spending time with friends who make you laugh (a side benefit is that you probably make them laugh too), children or pets
- joke books or the humor sections of periodicals such as Readers Digest (Humor in Uniform, All in a Day's Work, Life in These United States, etc.)
- playing games or working on puzzles
- comedy DVDs, television shows or online videos
- newspaper comic strips
- watching or listening to standup comedians
- joining a laughter club or group and developing laughter skills (including even the practicing of fake laughter)
Don't feel particularly amused? Force a smile or even generate some fake laughter, but watch out: in time, it may make you feel just as good as the real thing!