You can’t stand it. Your team just lost the chance to get into the playoffs. Your season is over, and the other team is dancing with delight because they move on to the next round. You want to yell, “Hey, you got lucky!”–and then you feel like crying, you’re so upset. Let the tears flow! Haven’t you seen professional athletes cry on the bench over a big loss? It’s one of the healthiest things you could do. A good laugh or a good cry can be as good for you as regular exercise. In fact, they have similar health benefits.
Workout for the Body and the Brain
A good belly laugh can put your body through a decent workout-depending on how funny the joke is, of course. Actually, a simple laugh requires coordinating 15 facial muscles alone! That certainly gives new meaning to the term funny face. In addition, blood pressure and heart rate rise during laughter, increasing circulation. This gets more oxygen and nutrients to tissues and moves important immunities through your body, enhancing its ability to fight infection. Add a joke a day to the apple a day.
In fact, many hospitals have added humor programs to their services, including humor libraries and something called a Comedy Cart, which offers humor materials to patients in their own room.
In a medical journal, Dr. William F. Fry Jr., of Stanford University Medical School, writes that laughter also helps patients with chronic breathing problems such as emphysema because the change in breathing pattern caused by laughter aids ventilation and clears mucus. Laughing and chortling, he says, accelerate the exchange of fresh and old air, and, as a result, increase blood oxygen levels, which the body needs to maintain health. Fry also points out that while the effect of humor on the central nervous system is not completely known, the brain activity that stimulates laughter does enhance alertness and memory.
Psychologist Peter Derks and his colleagues at the College of William and Mary in Virginia studied how the brain stimulates laughter. Humor begins with brain arousal. When you hear a setup line to a joke, the left side of your brain begins to process the words. Then the activity shifts to the frontal lobe of your brain, an area associated with emotions. Milliseconds later, before you hear the punch line, the right side brain’s functions coordinate with the left side’s to find the pattern; in other words, to get the joke. Finally, at the height of activity, the brain gets the joke, and laughter begins. Humor helps the brain work as a unit.
Think about the last joke you heard and how quickly you laughed, and that will give you an idea of how swiftly your brain is working. Derks speculates that this process, done repeatedly, may increase one’s awareness of an immediate situation and, in the long-run, sharpen the mind.
For Crying Out Loud!
On the other hand, people aren’t eager to get together for a good cry. When a group of your friends decides to go to a movie, chances are no one says, “Hey, let’s go see a really sad one and cry a lot.” Most likely you see a lot of comedies. And who wouldn’t prefer to laugh rather than cry? Do you know anyone who likes to shed those dreaded tears? Some feel crying makes them look like a baby; others think they look weak, especially in political situations.
In fact, crying can make you feel better and stronger because when you cry, you’re letting go of emotion that’s weighing you down. Dr. George Guthrey of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center says crying is “as potent as laughter in providing physical and psychological relief to lighten our load in life.” It’s a release that actually lowers blood pressure and reduces emotional and muscle tension.
Dr. William H. Frey II, author of Crying: The Mystery of Tears, says that the ability to cry is one of those unique acts that distinguish us from other animals. Dr. Frey’s research suggests that tears contain chemicals that build up as a result of stress. Therefore, crying is simply a natural means of ridding the body of those chemicals.
He also found a connection between a particular hormone and the number of crying episodes. in Frey’s study, women cried four times more often than men. Frey speculates that the higher levels of a hormone called prolactin in women is a factor. Between the ages of 12 and 18, girls have 60 percent higher levels of prolactin than boys, and that’s when the differences in crying begin, according to Frey.
This study helps point out the physical source of tears. So when you feel yourself welling up, your body is telling you it’s time to let it out.
“I Laughed Until I Cried”
Most tears and laughter are spontaneous. They come without warning. But next time you find yourself crying or laughing, remember you’re not only doing what comes naturally, you’re also helping your body and mind. Look at it this way: When you laugh so hard you start to cry, you’re not just having a good time, you’re doing something healthful.