Laughter is a powerful remedy to relieve stress, pain and conflict. It creates social bonds, improves the immune system and serves as a coping aid in times of stress and uncertainty. Laughing reduces the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. It strengthens immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies - improving your overall health. Endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals are triggered when we laugh, promoting an overall sense of wellbeing, and it can even temporarily relieve physical and emotional pain.
The science of laughter
Understanding what happens in the brain when we laugh is still very much a work in progress for scientists.
Research conducted by Dr Robert Provine,1 a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, examines the role of relationships in laughter. His studies of people laughing during shared conversations suggest that laughter has more to do with social relationships than humour. He found that people laugh 30 times more when there are other people around than when they're alone.
I've got a friend and within five minutes of being in her company we'll be laughing about nothing in particular. But interestingly, I don’t find that with all my friends, so is it the connection between us or is she more jolly than some?
The motor and reward pathways in the brain are primarily activated when we laugh. The anterior cingulate, a brain region involved in conflict detection, is also engaged when people are presented with something humorous.
"This region is not only involved in getting jokes but is also essential for coping with difficult feelings or emotions or even social situations," explains Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Maryland.2 "When you meet someone new, you’re going to be uneasy and not sure what to do – these are times when we laugh," he explains.
This process rings a bell with me. I'd quite often laugh when I was in a situation that was uncomfortable or when I felt nervous. Laughter and crying can ease a stressful experience by counteracting the effects of cortisol and adrenaline. I found it interesting to discover there are 10 different types of laughter; amused, joyful, sympathetic, polite, relieved, disappointed, embarrassed, stressed, ironic and commenting.
How laughter helps
Laughter helps you forget judgements, criticisms and doubts. And it can help you release inhibitions. Your fear of holding back and holding on are set aside.
All emotional sharing helps to build relational bonds. In therapy, the relationship between counsellor and client is paramount. Maybe somewhat surprisingly, sharing laughter and being somewhat playful, obviously only at appropriate times, can strengthen the relationship. It also facilitates clients to recognise that we can flow in and out of our emotional states, helping them to learn how to down regulate themselves after speaking and experiencing difficult emotions which builds resilience during and outside of therapy.
Humour is a powerful and effective way to heal grievances, disagreements and emotional hurt. Laughter can unite people during difficult times. Bring humour into conversations. Ask people, "What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today, this week, in your life?" Like yawning, laughter is contagious.
Finally, I've got a list of Tommy Cooper one liners on my phone. When I need a lift I read one such as, "I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day but I couldn’t find any," and giggle to myself. Hehe!
Views expressed in this article are the views of the writer and not necessarily the views of BACP. Publication does not imply endorsement of the writer’s views. Reasonable care has been taken to avoid errors but no liability will be accepted for any errors that may occur.