I have an older patient; I’ll call him Jack, who comes to see me now and then. Jack is 67 years old but looks and acts more like someone in his 40’s! He has a few minor health issues but none of the major ones, like heart disease, etc, that sometimes come in his age group.
Jack is always smiling and always tries to be in good humor even when I know things are not going so well in his life. He has the innate ability to find humor in life’s more trying situations, smile, and even laugh, through them. I really believe this is what keeps Jack so youthful and healthy! In fact, health researchers have proven this to be true – that laughter can really help you stay healthy by preventing heart disease and other serious illnesses. Allow me to pass on to you what else I tell my patients about laughter and staying healthy.
Laughter Really Is Good Medicine
Recently, University of Maryland cardiology researchers showed that laughter has a positive effect on relaxing blood vessels which can help prevent a heart attack. The study showed that stress can impair the lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, and that, perhaps, because laughter reduces stress, there is less blood vessel impairment in people who laugh more.
The study also showed that people who have existing heart disease were 40% less likely to laugh in stressful situations and harbored more anger and hostility – qualities that may have contributed to their heart disease. It was concluded that relieving stress with laughter may be just what the doctor ordered – literally!
In addition, other research has shown that laughter not only relieves stress but relieves actual physical pain. Have you ever stubbed your toe on something and if you laughed about it, it didn’t really hurt that much? That’s because laughing reduces the stress hormones of cortisol and epinephrine and produces “feel good” endorphins which are chemical neurotransmitters that blunt pain responses.
Laughter also strengthens the immune system as it increases the amount of T-cells (immune system strengtheners) and helps reduce actual physical stress.
On a mental stress level, laughter helps us defuse stressful situations from “threat” to “challenge” level. If we can step back from a situation and try to detach ourselves from the emotion of stress, anger, or sorrow, we can both stop it from escalating into a worse stressor like getting a high blood pressure attack. This is called “cognitive reframing” and is the process of learning how to perceive situations from a more beneficial stance to help us cope less stressfully or explosively.
Laughter also helps connect us to other people. It’s much easier to make new friends, and keep old ones, if you take a little more lighthearted approach to things. Laughter reduces everyone’s stress level by lifting everyone’s mood.
How To Put More Laughter in Your Life
There are a lot of ways to put more laughter in your life. Here are a few things I offer as suggestions to my patients:
- Comedy clubs. Get together with friends for a night at a local comedy club.
- Play games. Play a fun board game or outdoor game like sack relays, with friends or family.
- Rent some funny movies. Make some refreshments, and have “comedy night” at your house. Maybe even invite a few friends or family over for that. Some favorites of mine are John Candy and Chevy Chase comedies. You can also rent stand up comedy routines by various comedians.
- Force a laugh. I know this may sound strange, but research has shown that even “fake” laughter can have the same benefits as real, heartfelt laughter onheart disease. Apparently, our bodies can’t tell the difference! You could have a “laughing” contest with a friend or family member and see who can laugh the loudest or longest. Just trying is bound to bring about some real laughter!
- Read something funny. Buy some joke books or funny stories and everyday take a break and read a few of them. Try to pass one or two of them along to other people throughout your day.
Now, of course, there are some situations, like a death, major accident, natural disaster/catastrophe, or chronic repetitive stressors, like financial, health, etc, that can just hit us so hard that it may be impossible to “reframe” the situation into a less stressful one.
If you can talk to a friend, family member, counselor about your stressors, and what you might do to alleviate them, this may help you find a ray of sunshine and a few positive ideas to help you relieve some of the stress.
However, in situations occurring on a daily basis, its better to be more like my patient Jack. Try to “reframe” the situation and look at it from a different, less “threatening” perspective, thereby reducing it to only an “obstacle”. Smile through it if you can and try to find some humor in what’s happening. I try to laugh at least once a day. Try it! I think you’ll find that laughter really can help to make you feel better fast!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.