For family caregivers, the mountains of laundry, endless messes that must be cleaned up, constant doctor’s appointments, complete surrender of one’s personal life and the painful process of watching aging loved ones decline is no laughing matter. We usually feel like crying more often than we feel like laughing.

But many experts say that laughing in even the grimmest situations is good for both our mental and physical health. A case of the giggles can release stress and boost “happy chemistry” within the body. Most caregivers desperately need to decompress and lift their spirits, and one way to go about meeting these needs is to teach yourself how to laugh despite the challenges you face every day.

The Science Behind Laughter

Numerous scientific studies suggest that laughter is a powerful form of complementary therapeutic medicine that yields the following benefits.

  • Improves blood flow: Laughter causes the tissue that lines the insides of blood vessels to dilate or expand to increase blood flow to bodily tissues. (University of Maryland School of Medicine)
  • Strengthens immune responses: Humor raises the level of infection-fighting antibodies and immune cells in the body. (Robert Provine, professor of psychology, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation)
  • Reduces blood pressure: Laughter lowers blood pressure just as much as cutting salt out of your diet. (Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine)
  • Provides pain relief: Ten minutes of laughing can provide up to two hours of pain relief. In a study of patients in a rehabilitation center, 74 percent agreed with the statement, “Sometimes, laughter works as well as a pain pill.” (New England Journal of Medicine)
  • Counts as aerobic exercise: One minute of laughter is equal to about 10 minutes exercising on a rowing machine. (Dr. William Fry, Stanford University)

The benefits of laughter may be tied to human physiology. “Babies laugh long before they learn how to talk,” psychologist and laughter coach Annette Goodheart explains. “Laughing is a wonderful, cathartic process. I’ve worked with Auschwitz survivors who told me that the people who were able to laugh were the ones who survived.”

Laughter may seem like an inappropriate reaction to difficult scenarios, but just because you laugh doesn’t mean you don’t care or realize the gravity of a particular situation. Laughing in response to even the saddest circumstances helps you deal with your emotions, rather than keeping them bottled up. Sometimes laughter may lead to tears, but Sebastien Gendry, renowned yoga instructor and CEO of the American School of Laughter Yoga, assures that’s perfectly normal. “You cannot open up a box of emotions selectively. A hearty bout of laughter may lead to a good cry, which is also cathartic. If you have unexpressed emotions, laughter may help bring them out.”

Life isn’t always funny, particularly when caring for loved ones who are chronically ill or dying. Laughter forces you to be at peace with who you are and where you are. No one has a perfect life. “Laughter therapy is about how you react in the face of adversity. Sometimes, you can’t control your circumstances, but you can always control your reaction. How you react is always negotiable,” Gendry says.

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How to Laugh When You Don’t Feel Like It

To reap the benefits of laughter, you don’t even need to be happy or have a reason to laugh. Faking it works just fine. “The body cannot differentiate between fake and real laughter; you get the same physiological and psychological benefits,” Gendry says. “We change physiologically when we laugh. We stretch muscles in our face and body, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, which sends more oxygen to our tissues.”

The American School of Laughter Yoga recommends the following laughter exercises that caregivers can try at home. You can experiment with these exercises for 30 seconds or a few minutes at a time—whatever feels good to you.

  1. Gradient Laughter: Fake a smile, giggle and then laugh slowly. Gradually increase the tempo and volume of your laughter.
  2. Hearty Laughter: Spread your arms out beside you, look up and laugh heartily from deep down inside.
  3. I Don’t Know Why I Am Laughing: Laugh (faking it is perfectly fine) and shrug your shoulders as you look at yourself in a mirror. Use your eyes and body language to convey the message that you have no idea why you are laughing!
  4. Find Your Laughter Center: Probe your head with one finger as if looking for your laughter center. Imagine that each spot you push on triggers a different type of laughter and then act it out.
  5. Conductor Laughter: Imagine you are a conductor. Direct an imaginary orchestra with enthusiastic arm movements as you sing a song of your choice in laughter sounds only, such as “ho ho ho” or “ha ha ha.”

Join a Laughter Club

Since Madan Kataria, a family physician from Mumbai, India, launched the first Laughter Club in 1995, Laughter Yoga has become a global phenomenon. This type of yoga (also known as Hasyayoga) is a dual body/mind approach to health and wellness. Today, there are more than 6,000 Social Laughter Clubs around the world where people come together to use unconditional laughter and yogic breathing (Pranayama) to relieve stress and promote health. There are more than 450 Laughter Clubs across the U.S. and most of them offer free weekly meetings. You can find a club near you by visiting the Laughter Yoga University website. There are also laughter sessions available via telephone and Skype that are perfect for busy caregivers to participate in.

Learn to Minimize Caregiver Stress

The reality is, stress will always be an unavoidable part of life. The only aspect you can control is how you choose to deal with the negativity and tension that you encounter. Laughter is a simple and free way to cope with life’s ups and downs.