By Marlo Sollitto
For family caregivers, the mountains of laundry, the endless messes that need cleaned up, the rushing to doctor’s appointments, the complete surrender of one’s personal life and the painful process of watching a loved one’s decline is no laughing matter. You may feel like crying more often than you feel like laughing.
But many experts say that laughing in even the grimmest situations is good for you, both mentally and physically. Laughter releases stress, strengthens the immune system, improves sleep, diffuses tension, reduces pain and boosts “happy chemistry.” Laughter is the nemesis of tension; you can’t hold on to tension when you laugh.
The Science of Laughter: Nothing to Joke About
Numerous scientific studies suggest that laughter is a powerful form of complementary therapeutic medicine:
Blood flow. Laughter causes the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels to dilate or expand in order to increase blood flow. (University of Maryland School of Medicine)
Immune response. Humor raises the level of infection-fighting antibodies and immune cells. (Robert Provine, professor of psychology, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation)
Blood pressure. Laughter lowers blood pressure just as much as cutting salt. (Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine)
Pain relief. Ten minutes of laughing can allow up to two hours of pain relief. In a study of patients in a rehabilitation center, 74% agreed with the statement, “sometimes, laughter works as well as a pain pill.” (New England Journal of Medicine)
Aerobic exercise. One minute of laughter is equal to 10-minutes on the rowing machine. (Dr. William Fry, Stanford University)
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
To reap the benefits of laugher, you don’t need to be happy; you don’t need a reason to laugh. You can fake it. “The body cannot differentiate between fake and real laughter. You get the same physiological and psychological benefits,” says Sebastien Gendry, renowned yoga instructor and CEO of the American School of Laughter Yoga. “We change physiologically when we laugh. We stretch muscles in our face and body, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, which sends more oxygen to our tissues.”
Laughing is Human Nature
The benefits of laughter may be tied to human physiology. “Babies laugh long before they can talk,” psychologist and laughter coach Annette Goodheart explains. “Laughing is a wonderful, cathartic process,” Dr. Goodheart says. “I’ve worked with Auschwitz survivors who told me that the people who were able to laugh were the ones who survived.”
Just because you laugh doesn’t mean you don’t care. Laughing during even saddest situations helps you deal with emotions, rather than keeping feelings bottled up. Sometimes, faking laughter may lead to tears, but that’s OK, Gendry says. “You cannot open up a box of emotions selectively. A good laugh may lead to a good cry. Having a good cry feels good, too. If you have unexpressed emotions, laughter will bring them out.”
Life isn’t funny, particularly when dealing with people who are dying. Laughter forces you to be at peace with who you are, where you are. No one has a perfect life. “Laughter therapy is about how you react in the face of diversity. Sometimes, you can’t control your circumstances, but you can always control your reaction. How you react is always negotiable,” Gendry says
How to Laugh When You Don’t Feel Like It
Anyone can laugh for no reason, without relying on humor, jokes or comedy. Here are seven laughter exercises that you can try at home (provided by the American School Of Laughter Yoga):
Gradient laughter: Fake a smile, giggle, then laugh slowly and gradually increase tempo and volume.
Hearty Laughter: Spread your arms up, look up and laugh heartily.
Don’t Know Why I Am Laughing: Laugh (fake is perfectly fine) and shrug your shoulders as you look at yourself in a mirror and try to convey the message with your eyes and body language “I absolutely don’t know why I am laughing.”
Find Your Laughter Center: Probe your head with one finger as if looking for your laughter center. Imagine that each spot you push on triggers a different laughter sound.
Figure Of Eight Laughter: Laugh as you draw several imaginary figures of eight in the air with your head, shoulders, hips, knees.
Mental Floss Laughter: Move your hands sideways on either side of your head as if you were flossing your brain (why not?) and laugh as you do so.
Conductor Laughter: Imagine you are a conductor. Direct an imaginary orchestra with enthusiastic arm movements as you sing a song of your choice in laughter sounds only (“ho ho ho” or “ha ha ha”).