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Laugh a little! How laughter helps our brain reduce stress

Alexandra Carl | Apr 3, 2020 | Brain health

Alexandra Carl is an intern at The Learning Corp and studies Psychology at Northeastern University. Her studies and work experience have focused on social psychology and life science, fostering a deep admiration for the mind-body connection. 

These times are unprecedented. It seems as though COVID-19 has turned the world on its head, yielding public health emergency responses that have left us feeling uncertain, exposed, and frightened. With so much ambiguity there is one thing for certain: being in a constant state of distress is unhealthy for both body and mind. 

What can we do to lighten the current load on our mental health?

Fortunately, we have one of the most powerful tools for healing at our fingertips: laughter. There is plenty of clinical evidence to support the health benefits of laughter. And though it may seem like encouraging laughter at this time is not appropriate, there is a place for it. Chronic stress is harmful to our health, and humor is a tool used by the brain to help manage and redirect a hyper-stress response. We know that having a good belly laugh brings feelings of relief throughout the body. And perhaps a good way to deal with difficult times is finding humor in some of the absurdity of the situation. If you can sensibly adopt this perspective, your body will thank you! 

How does laughter impact our bodies and brain?

Our bodies react viscerally to a humorous experience. In the wake of a hearty laugh, chemicals are released throughout the entire body that works to heal and relax our biological system – meaning our cells relate to laughter as natural medicine. 

When you laugh, the muscles in your core tense up. This tension temporarily increases your circulation and blood pressure. However, in the immediate wake of a good chuckle, this muscular tension dissolves. Therefore, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, leaving in their wake a feeling of holistic relaxation, and this stimulation helps to relieve the physical symptoms of stress. 

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On a more microscopic level, laughter releases a flood of endorphins. Endorphins are naturally occurring “feel-good” chemicals that have the ability to not only relieve stress but also alleviate pain. We also know that laughter decreases the presence of stress hormones, and promotes the function of immune cells and antibodies, therefore providing an extra boost in immune function. 

And there are cognitive benefits of laughter. Often after indulging in something humorous, it is easier to conceptualize situations with a “big picture” perspective. Shifting into this mindset can lead you to perceive things as less immediately threatening. This allows the brain to realistically consider information that previously was categorized as overwhelming, leading to more rational and productive decision making. 

Laughter counteracts negative emotions and helps us connect with others – even if they’re not in the same room

When daily life feels more serious,  laughter can stop negative emotions in their tracks and replace them with feelings of gratitude, presence, and abundance. And a positive attitude is much more resilient and adaptive and can lead to more constructive problem-solving strategies in the long term.  

One of the most profound outcomes of laughing is that it can foster deep social connection. Sharing a moment of joy with another person, in the midst of something so difficult, is truly unifying. Staying connected with loved ones is incredibly crucial at this time. Sharing a joke helps to diffuse conflict, and maintain alliances with those who matter most. 

Tips on how to integrate more laughter into your day

  1. Joke around with loved ones. Make it a habit to speak with loved ones who you find to be good-natured and make you laugh. A light-hearted conversation by phone, video conferencing or social media is certain to be a welcome break from the gravity of current events 
  2. Move toward the laughter. If you hear laughter, move towards it! Some jokes are private, but many welcome a greater audience. Staying home with family and loved ones mean you will most likely be welcomed in on the joke. If you are more socially isolated, seek out virtual humor. Watch funny TV shows, comb through humorous websites,  or check social media channels that make you chuckle. 
  3. Be goofy with your kids, grandkids, or companion animals living with you. With kids around all the time, it may feel more disruptive, but, it also offers more opportunities for play. Goofing around with younger kids and playing with pets is a great way to bring out your inner child, and inspire laughter. 
  4. If you don’t want to force it, just smile. Smiling can lead to an endorphin release, resulting in a much-needed mood boost. So, if you are not feeling particularly silly or humorous on a given day, just try to find a few things to smile about. 

Online resources to help bring light and laughter into your day

Have any more to add? Let us know in the comments below.

Ultimately, it is important to try to maintain a grounded perspective in the midst of what feels like chaos. And maintaining humor and laughter can provide extra feelings of buoyancy that may very well carry you through to the other side. 

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