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Carbondale, PA
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Laughing Your Stress Away

          Laughter is the best medicine . . . . an old adage that is gaining new understanding.  Research into the physical benefits of a good laugh indicate that blood circulation and heart rate increase and it also provides an abdominal work out benefiting the diaphragm, thorax, heart and lungs.   Marian Community Hospital cardiac rehabilitation instructors Lorrie Williams R.N., and Sister Kathleen Mary Smith believe that humor is a powerful healer and encourage their class participants to lighten up.

During the past 30 or 40 years,  medical researchers have actually studied the serious side of a good laugh.  Noted author Norman Cousins questioned that if negative emotions produce negative chemical changes in the body then would positive emotions produce positive chemical changes.  He described in his book, Anatomy of an Illness,  an almost anesthetic effect of ten minutes of good belly laughing provided several hours of pain-free sleep.   Since Cousins’ initial consideration of laughter as serious medicine, many researchers have studied the physical and emotional effects of laughter in life.

          “Many of our cardiac patients are perfectionists and are very hard on themselves,” relates Sr. Kathleen.  “If driving themselves too hard created heart problems, then we hope that through our cardiac rehab program and our emphasis on enjoying life more will have a positive impact on health.”

          “Sometimes patients are depressed after a heart attack or heart surgery,” added Ms. Williams.  “We want to turn that around and encouraging patients to take themselves less seriously and to laugh more.  There are many benefits of laughing; it reduces blood pressure, stress and anxiety, it eases muscle tension and actually relaxes the body.  People who have shared a laugh also have an easier time communicating with one another.”

          Physical and mental health researchers at California’s Loma Linda University monitor subjects before, during and after they view a comic routine.  Researchers found markedly reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, that suppresses the immune system; similar studies also found an increase in the activity of natural killer cells, which fight infection and cancer, as well as higher levels of the immune system regulator.  It is additionally believed that laughter releases endorphins, the natural painkillers that are cousins to heroin and morphine.

          Researchers are actually equating some serious laughing with 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on a stationary bike.  The heartier the laughter - particularly if it involves flailing arms and kicking feet - the greater the benefit you stand to gain.  “This research reflects back to the Zen Buddhist belief that 15 minutes of laughter is equal to six to eight hours of meditation,” according to Sr. Kathleen.  “Our patients are initially skeptical, but as we talk and they have the opportunity to see improvements, they begin to break down the walls and accept a less serious outlook.”

          “Laughter and the important role it plays in our health is not something we discuss once with patients,” outlined Ms. Williams.  “Just as humor should be part of our everyday lives, we encourage patients to look for humor throughout their day.  Human babies begin to laugh at two or three months of age, sometimes earlier and the rate of laughter increases until age six, when a child often laughs three hundred times a day.  Perhaps six-year olds are the happiest, as individuals laugh less and less after the age of six.  One study suggests that the average adult laughs 17 times a day.

          “Our prescription for cardiac rehab patients is to laugh 12 times a day,” adds Sr. Kathleen.  “While some may be laughing more, if they can consciously count 12 different times they have laughed in a day, they are doing their hearts good.”

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