For family caregivers, the mountains of laundry, endless messes that must be cleaned up, constant doctor’s appointments, complete surrender of one’s personal life and the painful process of watching aging loved ones decline is no laughing matter. We usually feel like crying more often than we feel like laughing.
But many experts say that laughing in even the grimmest situations is good for both our mental and physical health. A case of the giggles can relieve stress and boost “happy chemistry” within the body. Most caregivers desperately need to decompress and lift their spirits, and one way to go about meeting these needs is to teach yourself how to laugh despite the challenges you face every day.
The Science Behind the Benefits of Laughter
Gelotology is the study of the psychological and physiological effects of laughter on the body. Numerous scientific studies in this field suggest that laughter is a powerful form of complementary medicine that yields the following benefits.
- Improved blood flow: William F. Fry, M.D., emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and pioneer of gelotology, and Michael Miller, M.D., cardiologist and professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, found that laughter causes the tissue that lines the insides of blood vessels to dilate or expand to increase blood flow to bodily tissues. This effect was so pronounced that it was similar to the increased blood flow caused by aerobic activity or statin therapy for lowering cholesterol.
- Strengthened immune responses: Research led by Lee S. Berk, DrPH, a medical researcher at Loma Linda University, has found that laughter has a positive effect on the immune system, including increased production of antibodies and activation of protective cells like T-cells and Natural Killer cells that fight viral infections and tumor cells.
- Reduced blood pressure: A study conducted in Japan showed that seniors attending adult day care experienced significant reductions in systolic blood pressure and heart rate following regular laughter therapy sessions.
- Increased pain relief: Researchers from Oxford University studied the effect of laughter on pain perception and found that “social laughter elevates pain thresholds both in the laboratory and under naturalistic conditions.” Endorphins released while laughing can have an opiate effect thereby increasing pain tolerance.
The benefits of laughter may be tied to human physiology. “Babies laugh long before they learn how to talk,” psychologist and laughter coach Annette Goodheart explains. “Laughing is a wonderful, cathartic process. I’ve worked with Auschwitz survivors who told me that the people who were able to laugh were the ones who survived.”
Laughter may seem like an inappropriate reaction to difficult scenarios, but just because you laugh doesn’t mean you don’t care or understand the gravity of a particular situation. Laughing in response to even the saddest circumstances helps you deal with your emotions rather than keeping them bottled up. Sometimes laughter may lead to tears, but Sebastien Gendry, renowned yoga instructor and CEO of the American School of Laughter Yoga, assures that’s perfectly normal. “You cannot open up a box of emotions selectively. A hearty bout of laughter may lead to a good cry, which is also cathartic. If you have unexpressed emotions, laughter may help bring them out.”
Life isn’t always funny, particularly when caring for loved ones who are chronically ill or dying. Laughter forces you to be at peace with who you are and where you are. No one has a perfect life. “Laughter therapy is about how you react in the face of adversity. Sometimes, you can’t control your circumstances, but you can always control your reaction. How you react is always negotiable,” Gendry says.
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How to Laugh When You Don’t Feel Like It
To reap the benefits of laughter, you don’t even need to be happy or have a reason to laugh. Faking it works just fine. “The body cannot differentiate between fake and real laughter; you get the same physiological and psychological benefits,” Gendry explains. “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.”
The American School of Laughter Yoga recommends the following laughter exercises that caregivers can try at home. You can experiment with these exercises for 30 seconds or a few minutes at a time—whatever feels good to you.
- Gradient Laughter: Fake a smile, giggle and then laugh slowly. Gradually increase the tempo and volume of your laughter.
- Hearty Laughter: Spread your arms out beside you, look up and laugh heartily from deep down inside.
- I Don’t Know Why I Am Laughing: Laugh (faking it is perfectly fine) and shrug your shoulders as you look at yourself in a mirror. Use your eyes and body language to convey the message that you have no idea why you are 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 type of laughter and then act it out.
- 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, such as “ho ho ho” or “ha ha ha.”
Join a Laughter Club
Since Dr. Madan Kataria, a family physician from Mumbai, India, launched the first Laughter Club in 1995, Laughter Yoga has become a global phenomenon. This type of yoga (also known as Hasyayoga) is a dual body/mind approach to health and wellness. Today, there are Laughter Clubs around the world where people come together to use unconditional laughter and yogic breathing (Pranayama) to relieve stress and promote health. There are more than 100 Laughter Clubs across the U.S. and most of them offer free weekly meetings. You can find a club near you by visiting the Laughter Yoga University website. There are also laughter sessions available via telephone and Skype that are perfect for busy caregivers to participate in.
Learn to Minimize Caregiver Stress
The reality is that stress will always be an unavoidable part of life. The only aspect you can control is how you choose to deal with the negativity and tension that you encounter. Laughter is a simple and free way to cope with life’s ups and downs.