Our bodies naturally respond to stress in a way allows us to protect ourselves in dangerous situations. Because of this, stressful events trigger a “fight or flight” reaction. When our body perceives a threat, the hypothalamus (a small region of the brain) sends nerve and hormonal signals to stimulate the adrenal glands, which then release a rush of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases energy, heart rate, and blood pressure, preparing the body to fight off attackers or run away from danger. Cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, increases the glucose (sugars) in your blood and improves the brain’s use of glucose, as well as increasing the body’s availability of certain substances that aid in tissue repair. Additionally, cortisol suppresses systems that wouldn’t be useful in a fight or flight situation, such as the reproductive system and growth processes. This also influences immune system responses and alters regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
The body usually regulates this stress response quite well and drops the levels of adrenaline and cortisol after the perceived threat is gone. This allows the body and its systems to resume functioning as usual. However, when stressors are constantly present in your life, and you always feel stressed, tense, or nervous, this stress reaction stays activated. This constant triggering of the body’s fight or flight reaction can have serious consequences on your health because long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones disrupts the way your body functions. Some of the health conditions that can develop from constant stress are:
- heart disease
- digestive problems
- difficulty sleeping
- memory problems
People react to life stressors in different ways. Genetics can predispose you to under or over reacting to stress. Additionally, extremely stressful life experiences, such as neglect or abuse, can certainly influence the way people handle stress later on in life. But, whatever your natural response to stress may be, it is certainly in your best interest to learn to manage and reduce stress, for both your mental and physical health. While you cannot always eliminate outside sources of stress, you can change the way that you deal with all that unresolved tension.
One of the best ways to do so is to have a good laugh. I’m not joking. The benefits of laughter not only help reduce stress, but also counter its negative effects. When you start laughing, your mental load is immediately lightened. And this is not the only positive effect. Laughter also helps increase the body’s oxygen intake, which stimulates the heart, lungs, and muscles. This increases the amount feel good chemicals called endorphins that are released by your brain, which creates a sense of well-being. Additionally, a good laugh actually increases circulation and helps with muscle relaxation which helps reduce the physical symptoms of stress.
While laughter is certainly a quick stress-busting fix, it also has long term health benefits. Laughter causes the release of natural painkillers in the body, helping to ease pain. Additionally, holding onto negative thoughts can increase stress levels and decrease your immune system’s functionality. However, positive thoughts (such as those brought on by laughter) causes neuropeptides to be released which decrease stress and help prevent you from getting more serious illnesses. Laughter can also lead to increased levels of satisfaction, can help improve your connections with others, and can make coping with stressful situations much easier.
If you often find yourself stressed and tense, its time to start reading the comics, watching silly TV shows, or exchanging jokes with a friend. Start laughing your way to better health today.