What does the research say about the potential for laughter to relieve stress?
“When we laugh, oxygen intake increases, which stimulates circulation and decreases cortisol levels,” according to David Friedman, PhD, a chiropractic neurologist and the author of Funny Bones, a book containing humorous accounts of his medical experience over 30 years. Several studies also echo Dr. Friedman’s claim.
One study found that stress reduces drastically after watching an hour-long funny video. (So, you may want to bust out that comedy special you’ve been meaning to watch.) In another randomized controlled trial published in the medical journal Stress, research also found that laughter can reduce cortisol levels that are typically released in response to difficult situations, and in another study, humor was shown to help people to endure stressful work situations. All to say, no matter the type of stress you’re experiencing, laughing may be good medicine.
How laughter therapy is being used to reduce stress
With all the positive evidence surrounding laughter’s stress-reducing effects, it’s no surprise that it’s made its way into mental health practices. For one, many therapists and psychologists have injected a healthy dose of hahas into sessions with their clients, says Dr. Friedman—“incorporating laughter into counseling sessions can physiologically lessen the pro-stress factors [as well as] reduce anxiety and depression.”
There’s also laughter yoga, a practice that is meant to induce laughter for prolonged periods of time. While you won’t be bending your body into warrior poses and downward-facing dogs, laughter yoga will leave you with a similar feeling. “[In a laughter yoga class], your diaphragm moves up and down as you laugh, and it mimics the deep breathing that you might do in a [traditional] yoga class,” says Celeste Greene, a certified laughter yoga teacher and the owner of the Laughter Club, a platform that offers free online laughter classes. “It helps you feel not only more energetic, but also more relaxed at the same time.”
Dr. Friedman agrees with Greene’s sentiment about laughter yoga: “It’s the ultimate chill pill that doesn’t require having to swallow a capsule.” He also points to a study that measured participants’ salivary cortisol immediately before and after a laughter yoga class, and 30 minutes later, and the researchers found a marked decrease in this biomarker for stress.
While laughter healing modalities often involve simulating laughter, there are still health benefits to making yourself laugh voluntarily, according to Greene. “You don’t have to be in a good mood or wait for something funny to happen in order to laugh. Just going through the motions of laughter actually can create the emotion of happiness,” she says.
Although more research needs to be done to find out for sure whether voluntary or stimulated laughter can uplift your mood, one study did find that it may actually be a fake it ’til you make it scenario. Researchers found that the physical action of laughing (whether it’s a real or fake laugh) can potentially reduce stress—making it ideal for times when the real world seems less than hilarious.
Expert-recommended tips for using laughter to relieve stress
While stress and anxiety aren’t a laughing matter, you may want to give these tips a try to get yourself out of a negative head space.
1. Try a laughing exercise
Again, just the physical act of laughing can work to decrease stress, says Greene. She mentions there are several exercises to induce laughter, the most simple of which involves making laughing sounds (aka laughing out loud). Dr. Friedman adds that even pretending to laugh is worth an attempt. If laughing isn’t accessible to you in a particular moment, Dr. Friedman mentions that smiling can curb stress, too. “Smiling releases tiny molecules called neuropeptides that help fight off stress, [and in turn], other feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins come into play,” he says.
2. Join a laughter yoga class
Joining a laughter yoga class isn’t just a way of inducing laughter on a whim, it’s also a wonderful way to laugh alongside others, which in itself, offers positive health effects. “Research shows laughing with others releases endorphins,” says Dr. Friedman, adding, “the calming effects of laughter in social interactions constitute a key mechanism for promoting intra-group affiliation, a sense of purpose, and bonding.” What’s more, according to Greene: “When you see other people laughing, hear other people laughing, and engage in playful behaviors with each other while laughing, the laugh becomes genuine and contagious.”
3. Make laughter a part of your morning routine
In modern life, many of us often reach for our phones the moment we wake up, whether to check our emails and messages or read the news. “Nix doing those things upon rising,” says Dr. Friedman. He recommends turning your attention to things that will fill you with joy rather than doom and gloom. Think: sending funny memes to your friends. “If you read the newspaper first thing in the morning,” he says, “start with the daily comics instead of the first-page headlines—which are never funny.”
4. Read or watch humorous content
If you want to inject more humor into your days, consider reading a book or watching a movie or TV show that will make you laugh. In addition to eliciting a chuckle or a belly-deep laugh, “functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have studied the cerebral response to humor,” says Dr. Friedman, “[and] researchers have found that reading a funny book or watching a comedy stimulates the frontal lobe, the region of the brain responsible for much of our complex social and emotional behavior.”
5. Hang out with kids
Kids can be a source of joy for those who love them, and they can also bring on the laughs, according to Dr. Friedman. “If you have any young children, nieces or nephews, grandkids, or even friends with kids, hang out with them more often,” he says. “Unlike most adults, children haven’t forgotten how to laugh. They will giggle and crack up at just about anything. Laughter is contagious and soon you’ll be joining in on the snorts and laughs.”
6. Play fun(ny) games with family and friends
As mentioned, laughter is often enjoyed in the company of others, so why not share the giggles and guffaws with your family and friends? Dr. Friedman suggests indulging in a competitive party-style board game. “Charades always offers some great entertainment, but my favorite game that I guarantee will get you laughing out loud is called Speak Out,” he says.
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