Offaly psychologists' advice: sometimes you really do have to laugh

"Laughter reduces levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress chemicals in the body."

Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty

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Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty

Offaly psychologists' advice: sometimes you really do have to laugh

Laughter really can be the best medicine

THE Tullamore Tribune and Midland Tribune psychology columnists have this week reminded people that often, laughter really is the best medicine.

The column by clinical psychologists Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty, who write for the Tribune every fortnight, is reproduced here -

In our last article, we discussed positive thinking as a tool we can cultivate to help manage stress and distress.

There is no doubt that as we struggle through another lockdown and the marathon which the pandemic has become, many people are experiencing increased stress, anxiety and depression.

We are seeing this in our private practices and this picture is being reflected in mental health services nationally and indeed worldwide.

So, in our view we all need to work at building a “toolkit” of little strategies to boost our emotional wellbeing and resilience when times are tough.

Laughter is definitely one of the positive strategies which is good for us, especially at times when it may feel like life is not giving us much to laugh about.

In this article, we will explore some of the reasons why laughter really can be “the best medicine”, followed by some tips and suggestions to help us laugh a little more when life is challenging.

Scientific research investigating the health benefits of laughter has only begun in the past few decades but many of the findings are encouraging, below we will summarise some of the key ones.

Laughter helps reduce stress

Laughter reduces levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other stress chemicals in the body. It also increases the level of feel-good chemicals called endorphins. Basically, when we are laughing heartily, we will not feel stressed at the same time as the laughter response is incompatible with the stress (fight-or-flight) response.

Laughter boosts the immune system

Laughter increases the number of antibody-producing cells in the body and enhances the effectiveness of T cells. Both of these are important in strengthening our immune system.

Laughter gives muscles a workout and helps reduce physical tension

Laughter contracts the abdominal muscles, the diaphragm muscle, the shoulders and other muscle groups so that they can let go of tension for up to 45 minutes.

Laughter also causes us to breathe in more oxygen, therefore stimulating the lungs and heart.

Laughter can play a role in pain and sleep management

Studies show that laughter can contribute to pain reduction, both physically and psychologically so that less painkillers are needed. It can also play a role in improving sleep.

Laughter helps us connect with others

Most of us know that laughter is contagious. When someone else laughs heartily, we will often find ourselves laughing too, sometimes even when we don’t know what they are laughing about.

Laughter helps us emotionally connect with other people and share positive feelings

Laughter gives us perspective and helps us manage difficult emotions. Humour and laughter can help give us a more light-hearted perspective on serious situations. This can reduce our stress response and help us to view difficulties as challenges rather than as threatening.

Laughter also helps improve the mood, so we are less inclined to focus on feelings of anger, stress, guilt and other difficult emotions.

The above snapshots from scientific research on laughter certainly suggests that actively seeking out and making time for a good laugh is worthwhile for our emotional wellbeing, especially at times when life seems grey and stressful.

Studies show that young children generally laugh several hundred times a day, but as adults our negative bias seems to kick in, so the average adult laughs less than 20 times a day.

Therefore, as adults, most of us need to create opportunities for lightness and laughter.

The following are some ideas for bringing more laughter into our lives, when we may be feeling stressed or grumpy or “covid cranky”.

Build a little store of things that make you laugh

When we are stressed or distressed, our natural inclination is not to look for things that are humorous, so it is a good idea to put a few simple items such as photos and cards that make you laugh in a place where you can easily find them, for example, in a drawer, or pinned to a board.

Having some books of jokes or funnies close to hand is also worth doing, just make sure that the type of humour is one you personally enjoy.

Find comedy online or on TV

Nowadays, there are countless funny movies, sitcoms, sketches, memes etc. available online or on television.

It is a good idea to find the types that suits your sense of humour. We all have our personal tastes and watching comedy that we don’t find funny can actually be quite irritating.

Connect with others who have a light-hearted approach and see the funny side to situations

Some people naturally make us laugh and tend to see the funny side of many situations. Whilst during lockdown we cannot spend as much time physically with friends and family, this does not mean we cannot connect by phone or using remote platforms.

Playing games with others via Zoom can also provide us with a laugh, most often when we make silly mistakes and are not taking it too seriously.

Fake it until you make it

Research shows that the body cannot tell the difference between genuine laughter and “faked” laughter where we just laugh artificially, the physical benefits are actually the same.

Often when we put on or force a laugh, we find that it leads to real laughter anyway. One option for doing this is to try “laughter yoga” which was originally developed by an Indian doctor Madan Kataria in 1995.

Usually this is practised in groups, which may not be possible at present, but we must admit we had quite a laugh from just looking at some videos of laughter yoga on YouTube!

Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on positive psychology and mindfulness through the year.

They will be delivering a Covid-19 “survival course” online later this month.

The psychologists will deliver the course by video conference over three Wednesday mornings.

The very challenging mix of emotions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic this year has been termed the 'coronacoaster' and the psychologists have designed the course to address those feelings.

“The coronavirus pandemic is emotionally challenging for everyone. Since March, we have all been through unprecedented changes in how we live our lives and we are continuing to navigate our way through the uncertainties of this pandemic,” said Imelda.

“It is hardly surprising that many people have been feeling higher levels of stress and anxiety and a whole range of other emotions, which at times can feel overwhelming.”

Julie explained that the online course will be run over three stand-alone live sessions.

The psychologist added: “Our aim is to help build a psychological toolkit of strategies to support emotional wellbeing and mental health as we come through this difficult time.”

The course will cover three topics over three one-and-a-half hour morning sessions -

Session 1: Mindfully managing anxiety and worry (Wednesday, November 18)

Session 2: Improving sleep (Wednesday, November 25)

Session 3: Managing the emotional 'coronacoaster' with mindful compassion and positive psychology (Wednesday, December 2)

Each session will include a mix of theory, education on practical strategies, and experiential practice of relaxation and meditations. Participants’ cameras and audio will be off during sessions but there will be an opportunity for questions at the end of each session.

The course will take place on Wednesday, November 18, the second on Wednesday, November 25 and the third on Wednesday, December 2, 10am to 11.30am each morning.

The cost of participation will be €20 for one session or €50 for all three sessions (fee includes course materials and resources which will be emailed to participants).

To book a place contact Imelda on 087 2271630 or Julie 087 2399328 or send a private message to the Facebook page Mind Your Self Midlands.

Advance booking is essential.