Sometimes when we experience a real-life situation that is so ironic or tragic, it becomes almost surreal - it is at this point that we can either stress out, or laugh. The situation itself has created tension, but more importantly, tension also results as we try to cope with our thoughts and emotions. Laughter, the physiological response to humour, effectively shuts down stress hormones. It is these stress hormones (cortisol and epinephrine) that suppress the immune system, increase the number of blood platelets (which can cause obstructions in arteries) and raise blood pressure.
Laughter increases the oxygenation of the blood by stimulating the cardiovascular system, which further promotes healing. Typically, different medicines are used for prevention, treatment and cure of disease. Laughter can effectively assist all three. It generates positive emotions that have the potential to enhance conventional treatments. Hence, it can be used as a tool to help fight disease.
Negative emotions, such as anger, sadness and fear are often bottled up by people, rather than expressed. If repressed, these negative emotions can cause biochemical changes that affect our bodies. When we laugh, we are offering a harmless cathartic release, therefore preventing potential disease. By increasing the concentration of salivary immunoglobulin A, laughter defends against infectious organisms entering through the respiratory tract. Researchers have also found that laughter may help protect you against against a heart attack.
Laughter can stimulate the release of endorphins - the body's natural pain killers. These allow people to cope with situations that would otherwise be unbearable. It can be beneficial for patient's who are suffering from emphysema and other respiratory ailments - belly laughter empties your lungs of more air than it takes in - resulting in a cleansing effect. Also, for those unable to perform physical exercises, laughter can provide good cardiac conditioning.
Laughter itself is absolutely free and available to everyone. It has no known negative side effects - which makes it an extremely useful tool in fighting disease.
Norman Cousins, in his book, Anatomy of an Illness, writes:
'Increasingly, in the medical press, articles are being published about the high cost of negative emotions. Cancer, in particular, has been connected to intensive states of grief or anger or fear. It makes little sense to suppose that emotions exact only penalties and confer no benefits ... I became convinced that creativity, the will to live, hope, faith and love have biochemical significance and contribute strongly to healing and to well-being. The positive emotions are life-giving experiences.'
However, Cousins didn't see positive emotions as a substitute for scientific treatment - he saw them as a method of optimising prospects of recovery.
Judy Goldblum-Carlton writes:
'It [laughter] improves circulation. When you laugh heartily, every organ is being massaged including your heart, lungs and digestive system. Headaches can just go away. When you laugh the endorphins released make you feel this elation. It makes those big decisions seem so much less important.'
Clown Doctor Units have been set up in order to help patients maintain a positive outlook on life. This is a very important aspect to consider when treating a patient - if there is no will, is there a way? Even if there is, what use is it if the patient is in such a negative emotional state?
It is clear that patients' health will very much depend on their emotional well-being, not just their physical state. However, further research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology is required to attain solid insight into laughter's exact effects on the human body. But even now there are stable grounds to suggest that laughter (and positive emotions) are therapeutic in nature and can assist in the recovery and prevention of disease.