It’s no joke! Why faking a LAUGH could help you beat anxiety as research shows people feel less stressed after a good giggle 

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English, math, laughter – this is the timetable some sixth form students at a Brighton school are following since the introduction of laughter therapy classes to help with stress and anxiety. But can laughing help people feel calmer?

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It is well known that laughter is good for well-being – when we laugh (which the average adult does 17 times a day), it induces a cascade of stress-relieving responses.

‘The physical act of laughing, pumping the diaphragm up and down’ [a dome-shaped muscle beneath the lungs] ‘To force air out of the lungs, triggers the endorphin system in the brain,’ says Robin Dunbar, an emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford.

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‘Endorphins make you relaxed, happy and seem to reduce cortisol, a stress hormone.’

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It is well known that laughter is good for well-being – when we laugh (which the average adult does 17 times a day), it prompts a series of stress-relieving responses.

Endorphins also help release nitric oxide, a chemical that helps relax tense muscles, exerting the stress-busting effect. Nitric oxide also dilates blood vessels, which may help explain why laughter has been shown to lower blood pressure.

Exactly why this might have a positive effect on stress is not clear. Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London, says there is probably a fairly complex network of brain regions involved in laughter. “But we clearly see that the hypothalamus is activated, which we know has a role in stress,” she adds.

The hypothalamus controls the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for our fight-or-flight response). “As soon as people start laughing, you see a drop in the level of the fight-or-flight hormone, adrenaline,” says Professor Scott.

These chemical changes calm us down when we laugh – and later. A 2020 study by the University of Basel, Switzerland found that the more people laugh in a day, the less they feel affected by stressful events.

While natural, spontaneous laughter has the most powerful effect, there is evidence that even fake laughter can reduce our response to stress.

It does this through an effect known as the motion that creates the emotion principle. When you use the facial muscles involved in smiling and laughing, it sends a response to the brain which then releases chemical messengers—for example, serotonin—that improve our mood, says a researcher at Delft University of Technology. Associate Professor Dr Natalie van der Waal explains. in the Netherlands and a specialist in cognitive and social psychology. It is this response that is used in laughter therapy.

Endorphins also help release nitric oxide, a chemical that helps relax tense muscles, exerting the stress-busting effect.  Nitric oxide also dilates blood vessels, which may help explain why laughter has been shown to lower blood pressure.

Endorphins also help release nitric oxide, a chemical that helps relax tense muscles, exerting the stress-busting effect. Nitric oxide also dilates blood vessels, which may help explain why laughter has been shown to lower blood pressure.

In a class of laughter therapy – also known as laughter yoga – participants perform exercises that make them smile, such as dancing and clapping, and sing or say words that sound like laughter, such as ‘Hahaha’. And yes, they have to pretend to laugh too.

The idea is that doing so switches on your endorphin production and triggers the actual laughter.

‘On top of this, the practice also uses yogic breathing, which slows down the breathing; and meditation, which may enhance its stress-reducing effects,’ says laughter yoga therapist Emma Jennings, who is running classes in Brighton.

The combination seems quite effective. A 2019 review of studies on laughter therapy published in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that 18 out of 19 studies showed a clear reduction in people feeling stressed after trying laughter therapy.

And it doesn’t take long to show benefits: A 2021 study by researchers in Germany and Canada found that even a single 30-minute session can reduce cortisol levels. It is evidence like this that led to the start of the Laughter Lessons at Brighton Girls’ School.

The NHS has previously offered laughter yoga to patients as part of a socially prescribed scheme (where GPs can offer non-medical activities that can improve physical and mental well-being).

But when it comes to laughter classes in particular, Professor Scott isn’t convinced about the widely prescribed practice. “Some people don’t like to laugh forcefully because they find it embarrassing or uncomfortable,” she says. ‘In these people, cortisol levels can rise during lessons, which would be harmful.

‘For them, it may be more helpful if therapy is given through natural opportunities, such as schools setting aside a period to have fun with friends. The social element of laughter is important; You are more likely to laugh with others than alone.’

Emma Jennings admits that laughter therapy is ‘a bit like Marmite – some people like it, others don’t’. If you’re willing to try it, you can find a local class online (laughteryoga.co.uk) – or fake it.

In the meantime, Dr van der Waal says: ‘Try to find something that can make you laugh for a minute a day – and make it a ritual, like brushing your teeth. The more you make it a habit, the easier it will become.’

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