How to Laugh Off Stress

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Nurture the Whole You Mind, Body, Spirit

You can't avoid stress, but you can limit its damaging effects with these four fun techniques.

STRESS IS NOT A JOKING matter. Its potentially harmful effects, like a weakened immune system, are responsible for nearly 90 percent of all doctor visits, according to the American Psychological Association. And a recent study published by the American Heart Association shows for the first time that mental stress constricts your blood vessels, which could lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Dealing with stress, however, does not need to be a somber affair. In fact, many experts prescribe a simple and perhaps surprising remedy for this problem—laughter.

Laughter boosts the activity of your immune system's natural killer cells and other defenses against infections, according to a 2001 study in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. It also appears to reduce the amount of hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, that your body produces during times of stress. Repeated release of these hormones over time can weaken your immune system. Finally, laughing helps expand capillaries, increasing blood and oxygen flow throughout your body, says Michael Miller, M.D., director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland's Medical Center in Baltimore. This may help protect you against heart attacks and strokes by relaxing constricted blood vessels.

The next time stress starts to creep into your life, use these four easy techniques to lighten up, calm your body and mind, and keep the stress from taking control.

Get Some Perspective
Much of our stress comes from the way we perceive reality, says Loretta LaRoche, a stress-management consultant and adjunct faculty member of Harvard University's Mind/Body Institute in Cambridge, Mass. If we see small annoyances for what they really are — just small annoyances-we can protect ourselves from unnecessary stress.

To put a stressful situation into perspective, first try visualizing it getting completely out of control to an absurd degree, suggests Roz Trieber, owner of Humor and Health Associates, a stress management company in Owings Mills, Md. For instance, if you're at work and the fax machine breaks, instead of getting frustrated, imagine that the broken fax machine is a monster, gobbling up all the paper in the office. Exaggerating your predicament helps you differentiate a small annoyance from a life-threatening problem and allows you to find the humor in the situation.

Another tactic is to write about the stressful situation with a funny slant, says Trieber. Start by simply writing about the problem. Then ask yourself: What's a simple solution to my situation, and what's the most ridiculous? Write about both. Your imagination is bound to push a laugh button. Putting your thoughts on paper also allows you to gain some distance from the event, and it gives you the opportunity to revisit the humorous scenario the next time a similar situation occurs.

Express Yourself
You can bring humor to a situation by expressing yourself physically or verbally. One of the first techniques that LaRoche teaches people, twirling, uses both types of expression. To do this exercise, stand up, state your frustration out loud, and then twirl around. The incongruity of saying something serious while doing a silly twirl adds a playful element to the situation, which helps counteract stress, says LaRoche.

If you'd rather stick to verbal expression, shout a positive motto during your most stress-filled moments. (This may work best when you're alone.) For instance, you're in your car, stuck in traffic, and you have an appointment in 10 minutes. Rather than blame the drivers around you for everything wrong in your day, shout “I'm so happy” or “I'm really in love with life,” says Rhonda Britten, a life coach in Boulder, Colo., and author of Fearless Living (Berkeley Publishing Group, 2002). Again, the incongruity of saying something positive while you're upset or stressed gives you a chance to laugh at yourself and the situation.

For those really tough moments when nothing comes together, try just laughing out loud, even if you don't feel like it. Fake laughter can lead to real laughter. “You're actually making the motion of laughing, and you may start laughing for real,” says Britten. And the feeling of euphoria induced by a good laugh may relax you, says Miller. In a relaxed state, you're more likely to think clearly.

Pull Out the Props
Sometimes it's hard to laugh even though you know it will do you good. When you feel too stressed to laugh out loud, reach for a humor tool.

A clown nose or Groucho Marx-style nose glasses can do wonders, says Trieber. When you're alone or with friends or co-workers with whom you feel comfortable, put the nose or glasses on, look in a mirror, and smile. “It may sound absolutely ridiculous,” says Trieber, but it gives you the opportunity to chuckle and relieve a tense atmosphere. In fact, studies show that a positive facial contraction like a smile can signal your brain to halt the mood-altering effects of stress.

If the thought of wearing a clown nose causes you more stress than it would curb, try a different tool. Trieber recommends using a balloon and blowing your stresses into it. Once you fill the balloon with air, let it go. Seeing it sail around the room can help bring a giggle and possibly a sigh of relief, says Trieber.

If your stress stems from feeling undervalued, reach for a set of clapping hands or a large handlike tool to pat yourself on the back. (Look for these items at a novelty store.) We all like to feel appreciated but often don't receive positive feedback when we need it, says Trieber. So keep these tools in an accessible place nearby for those times when you can use a round of applause or a pat on the back.

Humor tools don't have to be props. A funny picture or an object that makes you smile or laugh works just as well. “On my desk I have little flat glass circles with smiley faces on them,” says Britten. “Every time I walk into my office… I see those smiley faces, and I immediately feel better.”

Tear out a favorite comic strip from the paper or stick a Post-it note with a funny saying to your computer or refrigerator. Or play a favorite CD that triggers a fun memory, says Britten. The important thing is to find whatever humor tools work best for you and keep them handy.

Exercise Your Funny Bone
Your sense of humor needs a daily workout. Like riding a bike, the more you use it the better you get at it, says LaRoche. Miller also likens the protective effects of humor to regular exercise. He and his colleagues surveyed 150 patients who had suffered heart attacks or undergone a procedure like angioplasty and compared them to 150 healthy counterparts. The heart patients were 40 percent less likely to laugh or even recognize humor, according to the results, which were published in the International Journal of Cardiology in 2001.

Opportunities to incorporate humor into your daily life abound. For example, instead of watching a tear-jerking drama or reading a suspenseful murder mystery, go to a comedy club, rent one of your favorite funny movies, or read a lighthearted novel. When you're stressed, “don't get involved in a lot of morose activities or TV programs that are not going to serve your best interests,” says LaRoche. Just anticipating a humorous event like a comedy show or a funny movie can stimulate your body's ability to counteract the effects of stress, according to a 2001 study from the University of California College of Medicine in Irvine, Calif.

Also, don't forget that funny people may be around you. “You build your sense of humor when you hang around with people who laugh at the same things you do,” adds Trieber. So when you're feeling stressed—wherever you may be—call or email a friend. Ask for a joke or help making light of the situation. Both you and your friend will benefit from sharing a good laugh.

Studies show that the physical act of smiling can signal your brain to halt the negative, mood-altering effects of stress.

Just anticipating an event like a comedy show or funny movie can stimulate your body's ability to counteract stress.

PHOTO (COLOR): Warning: Frequent laughter may lead to lowered stress levels, an enhanced sense of humor, and a positive outlook on life.

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By Melissa Nachatelo

Melissa Nachatelo is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. Busy pursuing a masters degree and working, she's less stressed thanks to these laughing tips.

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