Dr. VICTOR S. SIERPINA

“Laughing is the shortest distance between two people.” Victor Borge, actor. Have you noticed how a heartfelt laugh can fill a room like liquid sunshine. A friend of mine is instantly recognized in a room by his loud and infectious laugh. Everyone can quickly tell when he is at the gym or other social setting by the sound of his cheerful laugh. Like the recently deceased Tom Magliozzi of Car Talk fame whose signature laugh on the radio show made even the most tense people smile, my buddy’s easy and natural outbursts of laughing out loud just bring joy to those around him. My little granddaughter Serenity, now nearly seven, can be sitting quietly with us in a room and for no apparent reason, burst into giggles and then uproarious laughter. No matter how bad we might feel at that moment, it is like a switch is turned on by the sound of laughter to bring warmth and pleasure into our lives.

Other kinds of outbursts may have the opposite effect. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have shown that anger can kill. For those at higher risk of heart disease in particular, bursts of anger can bring on a heart attack or stroke.
A study from Australia found that those experiencing intense anger were at 8.5 times the risk of a heart attack the two hours following this event than normally. A European study confirmed this by showing increases strokes, heart attacks, and irregular heartbeats followed anger spells.

The stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol are spilled out in large amounts with anger and this has an immediate effect on all our physiological systems. Smokers and overweight persons are particularly at risk and anger can even affect the immunity and worsen control of diabetes as well.

On the other hand, laughter causes a release of nitric oxide, which dilates our blood vessels thus lessening cardiovascular risk. Laughter causes release of endorphins to make us feel good and offset pain. And it reduces release of cortisol and epinephrine from the adrenal glands, decreasing levels of these stress chemicals rather than raising them as does anger.

Laughter can definitely lessen anxiety, improve relationships, and even help people cope better with terminal or serious conditions. Think about volunteer clowns and the good they do in pediatric hospitals. Laughter thus has many therapeutic applications.

Getting a roomful of people laughing can be as simple as a good joke. One of my favorite strategies is starting to laugh out loud in a group for no good reason. First they will laugh at you and then at themselves as they dissolve into helpless mirth. Laughter yoga has become very popular of encouraging laughter as was featured in a TIME magazine article recently.

There are also certified laughter therapy groups such as The World Laughter Tour that encourage and teach laughter as a therapy. There is such a program at the UTMB Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Galveston.
So if there is a lesson here, it is to laugh more. Find the bright spots in life: the silly, the incongruous, the ridiculous and use them as an excuse to laugh. Many tense situations can be quickly diffused by laughter.

On the other hand, laughing at someone may be cruel and inappropriate so be careful to avoid mean-spirited laughter.
Remember the old saying, “If you laugh, the world laughs with you. If you cry, you cry alone.” Or how about, “He who laughs, last.” We all can really do with a bit more joy and laughter in our world. In the week ahead just decide to Laugh Out Loud (LOL), just for health of it!

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.