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This Is Your Brain On Laughter

Martine J. Byer
Written by Martine J. Byer

Recently, my friend decided to go on a diet to lose ten pounds. One day, she called to tell me how pleased she was about her new found ability to walk along city streets lined with bakeries and food markets, and simply pass them by without indulging her usual habit of grabbing an afternoon sweet. A moment after we hung up (she later told me), she checked her texts. Then one minute later, she was standing in a deli with a chocolate ring-ding cake hanging off her lip. "What the heck triggered this?" she later asked me.

The word "trigger" has come to mean (among other things) that moment when a person experiences anxiety and, almost without realizing it, ends up in an activity that he/she will regret. The dieter overeats, the person who vows to budget is handing their credit card to a cashier, someone who said they would never yell at their kid is screaming, drinkers drink. Everyone has a "drug" of choice to alter painful tensions. We've all been there.

But how can we not go there again? What can trigger a person to tame their triggers?

As a psychotherapist, I talk about trouble spots with people all the time. We go over the same ground, harvesting pain like investigators at an archaeological dig. When tough feelings arise, there are strategies to alter them like taking three deep breaths to give the activated person a moment to think and open a space to make a different choice. There are physical actions like rolling a bead between fingers or squeezing a meridian point like the one between your thumb and pointer finger which gives the good part of the brain a quick signal to relax. I refer to all these methods as "trigger shifters." And laughing is the quickest, most fun "trigger shifters" of them all.

I have actually begun to work on coming up with customized "trigger shifters" with each of my clients. But this all started happening quite naturally. A 28 year-old client of mine looking for love often becomes severely wound up when she doesn't hear from a particular guy she's seeing. She finds herself distracted at her high-powered, intense job, glancing her cellphone screen every few minutes. When she doesn't hear from someone she likes, she always tends to blame herself, worrying that she did something wrong. We've discovered that this has a lot to do with the insecurity she felt with a judgmental mother who ruled by the "my way or the highway" ideology. in other words, rejection was always looming over her.

During our work together, we are working on ways to figure out how she can avoid being seized by anxiety-triggers. During one session, I brought up Stanley Kowalski from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, at that moment where he's outside his wife's door, screaming "Stella!"

My client laughed loudly upon comparing herself to Stanley, seeing just HOW anguished and undone she became by waiting for her phone to buzz. "That is the exact feeling, I'm like Stanley." Between sessions, I suggested that when her intense feelings arise, she should imagine that moment in the play. A week later, she told me that she spent the week laughing at the Stanley in her head and shifted away from the agony. A simple reminder to laugh ("Stella!") has turned her agony into laughter, which allows her to recognize her pattern and shift out of it.

Laughter does good things; it signals the brain toward a new neural pathway that shuts off bad feeling, it unhooks an activated autonomic nervous system so that the jazzed up chemicals of anxiety do not release, it frees the mind and body from fear. It is a powerful and totally natural anti-anxiety remedy. Silliness signals a way out.

Take another one of my clients. In the midst of depression, she opens her eyes each morning to find herself immediately anxious. She thinks instantly of the bills, the friend who is angry with her, and all combinations of unhappiness awaken. But, she loves animal antics and we come up with a way to use that love to lift her moods. Now without missing a beat, she gets out of bed, goes to a comedy animal site on the web and checks in on the daily video. It sounds silly, but it works. Plain and simple.

By laughing at a cat whining at it's owner for waking him up or an elephant in love with a dog, her body releases healing chemicals. This is her new prescription. She is imprinting a new mechanism in her brain and developing the emotional muscle to retrieve it as needed.

Something funny can change everything: in an instant, laughter loosens our grip. It's the best, painless and most delicious medicine. Plus, it doesn't require a spoonful of sugar to make it go down because laughter is sweet enough on it's own.


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