Stress is No Laughing Matter…or Is It?

There’s nothing funny about life in the fast lane, especially when the fast lane is filled with drivers who may be texting or checking email. Face it—we live in a fast-paced, stress-inducing world. We’re hurrying, scurrying, and being bombarded by an endless stream of information, and it’s taking its toll on our health.

Stress is an inevitable part of life. Our ancestors faced immediate and dangerous stressors such as saber tooth tigers, which induced the fight-or-flight response. Today’s stress, on the other hand, is prolonged and constant. Our bodies perceive fight-or-flight situations where none exist, resulting in increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones linger in the body and impact our physical and mental wellbeing.

While we may not be able to completely avoid stress, we can find ways to hit the release valve. In fact, researchers who study the effects of stress suggest one simple prescription: laugh.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

When your hard drive crashes, you run out of gas on the freeway, you miss an important meeting, and you arrive home to a colicky baby, it may be hard to laugh, but research indicates that it may be your best defense.

Laughter triggers the release of endorphins (health enhancing, feel-good hormones). It has been shown to elevate mood and reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Researchers from Loma Linda University in California have been studying the effects of laughter on the immune system and have found that laughter can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and boost immunity.1

Laughter increases the number of antibody-producing cells and enhances the effectiveness of T cells, which results in a stronger immune system and fewer physical effects of stress.

Looking for Laughs

Sometimes it’s hard to find humor when you feel overwhelmed by stress, but humor therapists insist that laughter in the absence of humor works just as well. The terms humor and laughter are often used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same. Humor is the cognitive perception of something funny, mirth is the emotion that accompanies humor, and laughter is the behavior that communicates mirth to others. Typically, humor leads to mirth and laughter; however, the simple act of laughter (even in the absence of anything funny) tends to intensify mirth and even induce mirth in others. In other words—laughter really is contagious. Fake it until you make it.

Hob Osterlund, RN, MS, CHTP, is a clinical nurse specialist in pain management and has created several therapeutic humor programs for patients. She says that it doesn’t really matter what type of humor people use so long as it provides them with a sense of relief: “Find something gentle, something that really tickles that place in you, and then find someone to share it with because we know that laughter multiplies when you’re with others.”

Osterlund recounts the story of a cancer patient who donned a silly rainbow wig and then pressed his nurse’s call button, saying, “Come quickly. I’m having a side effect of my chemotherapy.” When the nurse appeared, he said, “Look what the chemo has done to my hair!” He laughed, the nurse laughed, and soon the laughter spread throughout the rest of the staff. The result—a little stress relief for everyone.

Flex Your Laughter Muscles

It takes practice and a shift in attitude to choose laughter over frustration, anger, or tears. Laughter can’t eliminate the stressors in our world, but it can make us feel better—and when we feel better, we’re more likely to cope with the stress in healthy ways.


1 Berk LS, Felten DL, Tan SA, Bittman BB, Westengard J. Modulation of neuroimmune parameters during the eustress of humor-associated mirthful laughter. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2001;7(2):62-72, 74-76.