Stress And Laughter - Physiological Opposites

Stress And Laughter - Physiological Opposites

Stress is associated with almost 90 percent of all illnesses and 80 percent of all prescribed drugs sold. Depression, anxiety, asthma, alcohol and drug addictions, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and cancer are just some of the major stress related illnesses prevalent today. It is recognized as the world’s biggest killer and costs business and organizations billions of dollars each year in medical costs, medical leave and loss of performance. To escape stress, people turn to alcohol, smoking and drugs. Though there are many methods to reduce and manage stress; laughter is the quickest of all of them.

Symptoms of stress

If you suffer from any of the following symptoms, you are probably heading for any of the above diseases or a combination of them: Nagging ache at the base of the neck, frequent headaches with tender temples, lethargy and constant fatigue, frequent coughs and colds, stomach knots, nausea and indigestion, irritable bowel or constipation, muscle tension with backache and neck ache, difficulty in going to sleep, waking early, breathlessness, bouts of dizziness, light-headedness, increase/decrease in appetite, increased smoking or drinking, loss of sexual drive, frequent mood swings, feeling of isolation, lack of self-worth, frequent memory lapses, poor decision-making abilities, irritability and aggression, difficulty in concentrating on and allotting priorities and suicidal tendencies.

All of us suffer from some of the above symptoms off and on, but if the symptoms recur and persist for a long time, you need to unwind and laugh more. People try a number of relaxation techniques such as exercise, massage, yoga, meditation, going on holidays, picnics, and outings. All these measures are time consuming and expensive. One needs concentration and will power to stay with these pursuits. In fact, most exercise programs are abandoned due to boredom and lack of motivation.

Stress is hard- wired

In prehistoric times when stress system developed, it became hardwired into the body, to prepare it to survive during any life threatening situation. In the beginning, stress situations occurred only occasionally, allowing the body plenty of time to dissipate the stress chemicals from the body. However, today we are subjected to constant (or chronic) stress mainly because we are facing plenty of stressful situations and some of them are not real; they are imaginary. This keep us in a constant arousal state leading to sustained release of stress chemicals in the body. It releases hormones and neuro-peptides into the blood to instantly prepare for a ‘fight or flight’ response. This response allows it to perform superhuman physical feats and shuts down or disrupts a number of important body systems not required for ‘fight or flight’ action. This includes the immune, circulatory, digestive and sexual systems. It also constricts many capillaries and blood vessels to reduce bleeding in case of a wound (increasing blood pressure), dumps huge amounts of glucose into our blood to provide fighting energy (disrupting the body’s sugar control system), and pumps up muscle groups for fighting or fleeing, and more.

How laughter alleviates stress

Stress and laughter are physiological opposites. You cannot laugh and be stressed at the same time because they activate opposite branches of the autonomic nervous system. When under stress, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is the ‘fight and flight’ response, which protects us from emergencies. Laughter on the other hand activates the para sympathetic system, also known as ‘rest and digest’ system, responsible for relaxation and rejuvenation.

The predominance of one tends to prevent the other: Laughter quickly reduces the levels of stress chemicals and hormones in our body. Significant reductions can occur in minutes and last for days. It switches on and boosts physiological systems that stress switches off, including the circulatory, digestive, sexual and immune systems. Stress, worry, fear and emotional problems stifle learning ability, creativity, teamwork, productivity, efficiency and motivation while laughter boosts and strengthens these attributes.

Stress cocktail

The human body responds to stress with a massive release of hormones from the adrenal medulla (epinephrine & norepinephrine) and adrenal cortex (cortisol) into the bloodstream.

These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting muscles on alert. Pupils dilate to improve vision. The liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase body energy. Sweat is produced to cool the body. This is known as the stress response. It enhances a person's ability to perform well under pressure. However, this response can cause problems when it overreacts or fails to turn off and reset itself properly. Excess levels of stress hormones have powerful negative effects on our bodies. Let us understand how different stress hormones affect our physiology:

Cortisol: This stress hormone leads to impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia, decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, increased blood pressure, lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, and memory problems.

High cortisol levels also lead to increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Health problems associated with increased stomach fat are heart attacks, strokes, and the development of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), which in turn lead to other health problems. Repeated increases in cortisol levels lead to depression-like behavior and greater signs of anxiety, especially in males.

Catecholamines: These are immunosuppressive hormones released by stress. They include epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and dopamine. Catecholamines cause general physiological changes that prepare the body for physical activity (fight-or-flight response). Some typical effects are increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels.  However in higher doses catecholamines harm or deplete the body and immune system:

Epinephrine suppresses the immune system and causes cardiac irritability which can lead to additional complications. Norepinephrine increases heart rate and blood pressure and creates a sense of panic and overwhelming fear/dread. It is associated with loss of alertness, poor memory, and depression.

Moderately high levels of norepinephrine create worry, anxiety, increased startle reflex, jumpiness, fears of crowds and tight places, impaired concentration, restless sleep, and physical changes. Physical symptoms include rapid fatigue, muscle tension/cramps, irritability, and a sense of being on edge. Almost all anxiety disorders involve norepinephrine elevations.

High concentrations of norepinephrine lead to panic attacks. Symptoms are palpitations, pounding heart or rapid heart rate, sweating and body temperature changes, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, smothering sensations, choking sensations, chest pain and discomfort, nausea or stomach distress, dizziness, lightheadedness, faintness, a sense of unreality, as though you are outside yourself, fear of losing control or going crazy, fear of dying, numbness and tingling throughout the body, chills and hot flushes.

Laughter cocktail

Laughter triggers the release of a cocktail of chemicals and hormones that are extremely beneficial and crucial to good health. This includes NK cells, endorphins, serotonin, growth hormone, interferon-gamma (IFN) and a host of other beneficial substances produced naturally every time we laugh heartily for extended periods.

Laughter boosts the immune responses, particularly components related to anti-viral and anti-tumor defenses. It diminishes the secretion of cortisol and epinephrine, while enhancing immune reactivity. It boosts secretion of growth hormone, an enhancer of key immune responses. The physiological effects of a single laughter session can last 24 hours and regular sessions can produce profound and long-lasting changes.

The laughter cocktail has extraordinary positive healing effects on your body and mind. They boost immune system function, improve your outlook on life, diminish symptoms of  depression and because they help reduce stress, they help prevent the many diseases and disorders caused by chronic stress.

Endorphins: These are our bodies' natural pain killers. The name means ‘morphine made by the body’. Laughter stimulates high levels of endorphins which create a pleasant ‘high’ feeling and also act as an effective pain killer. Beta endorphin produces a sense of well-being, reduces pain, eases emotional distress, increases self-esteem, and even creates a sense of euphoria.

American journalist Norman Cousins who suffered from the very painful disease ankylosing spondylitis famously described that after stopping all his pain medications and sleeping pills, he discovered that ten minutes of belly laughter could give him two hours of pain free sleep.

Serotonin: This makes you feel mellow and relaxed, hopeful and optimistic. You have a sense of being at peace with life. You are creative, thoughtful, and focused. You also have a lot of impulse control, which enables you to "just say no" more easily.

Growth hormone: This increases calcium retention, and strengthens and increases the mineralization of bone. It increases muscle mass. It induces protein synthesis and growth of many different organ systems of the body, resulting in a "positive nitrogen balance". GH stimulates the immune system. It improves liver and digestive functions and reduces body fat. A recent medical study showed GH levels increased by 87% after laughter.

Natural Killer Cells (NK cells): These are best known for their capacity to kill tumor cells before they become established cancers. They are also important in controlling microbial infection and viral attack in the earliest phases of the body’s immune response.

NK cells are the first line of defense against cancer and infectious diseases. They constitute a major component of the immune system, defend the body against viruses and other pathogens. These attack cells that have been infected by microbes and serve to contain viral infections by destroying the virus inside destroyed cells. Psychoneuroimmunology (PSI) studies have shown conclusively that laughter dramatically and immediately increases the levels of NK cells.

Interferon-Gamma: This activates T cells, B cells, immunoglobulins, and NK cells. It helps to fight viruses and to regulate cell growth. It fights tumorous cells including cancer. Blood samples taken before, during, and after laughter show significant increases in IFN lasting into the following day.