Health & wellness

Deep Breath

Laugh your worries away

credit Hanna Barczyk
Hanna Barczyk

We often talk about laughing at our troubles; Laura Malloy actually teaches people how.

Last week, leading a group of high school students, Malloy told them to think about all the homework they had, the social problems they faced, and the pressures they were under. She had them hang their heads.

Then, she told them to throw their arms skyward and laugh.

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The fact that it was fake didn’t matter. Just the mere act of laughing “begins to change our perceptions of our stressors,” said Malloy, director of yoga at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Where the body goes, the mind follows. A small series of studies has shown that people who got Botox injections in their foreheads, making them unable to frown, reported feeling happier — and not just because they had fewer wrinkles.

Despite the assumption since biblical times of a link between laughter and health, the research is pretty thin, although some studies have suggested that laughter reduces pain and stress, improves blood sugar control and immune function, and reduces the risk of heart attack.

One 2013 killjoy review catalogued a few possible downsides to side-splitting laughter: leaking urine, triggering an asthma attack, or spewing contagious germs — against which the authors recommend “laughing up your sleeve.”

Laughing does seem to have benefits at work, according to one 2007 study, which looked at a group of workers who laughed together for 15 minutes a day. At the end of the two-week research period, the laughers felt more positive and more powerful.

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Experts in humor therapy say there are few rules except this one: Don’t try to laugh by putting someone else down. That kind of negative humor is likely to bring you down instead of up.

Laughter, like yawning, is contagious. It’s tough to keep a straight face in a room full of giggling people. This is why Malloy always encourages her Laughter Yoga students at the Benson-Henry Institute, which was established in 2006 with the support of Globe owner John Henry, to make eye contact with others while they laugh — it’s self-reinforcing.

Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, agrees that such laughter can feel shallow. “The honest, true laughter is spontaneous.”

If you really want relaxation laughter, Sood, who specializes in stress reduction, says you should surround yourself with people you love and trust, and be happy with yourself.

“That is what will have an impact,” he said.

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Karen Weintraub

Karen Weintraub can be reached at weintraubkaren@gmail.com.