Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.
I watch “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” religiously. Instead of CNN, Fox or MSNBC, my news source of choice is Comedy Central. Why, you may ask? Don’t I want to be a well-informed citizen? Shouldn’t I be reading the New York Times and taking things seriously. Maybe. But in today’s environment, I desperately need a laugh.
Reports of a failing economy, swine flu and threats from the Taliban in Pakistan could make anyone feel stressed out. Add to that family and work responsibilities, a never-ending stream of email, texts and phone calls and it is amazing that we aren’t all just pulling our hair out. How do we manage?
Stress is a biological phenomenon, correlated to our ancient “fight or flight” psychology. When we encounter a stressor, be it FOX News or an aggressive driver, it sets off a complex series of hormones which surge through our bodies. Our sympathetic nervous system and limbic brain kick into overdrive. We either want to flee, or we prepare to fight. Our muscles tighten; we are ready for physical action. However, this is not good for our bodies or our brains. Reports say that stress causes added heart attacks in men and added reproductive troubles in women. In our brain, our parasympathetic nervous system takes a back seat and we become less receptive to new ideas. We narrow focus and prepare for the worst.
When I watch the regular news, I become my most horrible self—an anxious zombie: Swine Flu? “I am never leaving my house again.” The economy? “How will I survive the next great depression?” Pakistan? “Uh oh, it’s World War III!” And this is just the outside world. In my private life, the things that stress me out also receive the same catastrophic assessment and I shut down. I presume we all do, at least initially.
That’s why I enjoy The Daily Show. Just when I am headed into “Great Depression” territory, Jon Stewart reminds me that there are reasons to smile. When he announces that he, and we, the American public, just bought ourselves a car company named GM, I grin. By the time he renames the Swine Flu “piggy flu” I am laughing out loud. (How could piggies hurt you?) Somehow things don’t seem so bad. In fact, they’re downright funny (or at least absurd).
We all know the importance of positive emotions. Barbara Fredrickson’s, “broaden and build,” theory has taught us that joy and amusement allows us to expand our thinking.
It also prevents that constricted feeling that manifests in our bodies when we are stressed. Equally, Valliant, Peterson, and Seligman tell us that humor is both a coping mechanism and a strength. Finding humor in the midst of a stressful situation often diffuses the conflict and allows us to return to a healthier state both mentally and physically. (Just think of that moment when you were fighting with your spouse/parent/sibling and then all of the sudden you looked at each other, realized the fight was ridiculous, and dissolved into peals of laughter.)
It can be difficult, in a moment of stress to find the thing to laugh about. Comedians make it their stock and trade, and it is part of what makes them so beloved. Yet I suggest to you, when you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, try and turn it upside-down. Find something to make the situation comic. Call a friend and say, “I am really stressed-out. Help me find something funny in this situation.” If that fails, try laughing. Really, just start laughing. Some people call it laughing yoga. I admit that at first it might feel false, but keep trying. As they say, “fake it ‘til you make it,” and then all of the sudden the belly laughs will just come rolling out of you.
There are many benefits of laughter, all of which combat stress. First, laughter boosts immunity, lowers stress hormones and relaxes your muscles. Laughter reduces fear and anxiety and enhances resilience. Even better, if you laugh with someone, you form a connection, and as good positive psychologists we all know social connectivity is good for us.
If stress can take years off your life, laughter adds them back on and lifts your mood. Like the old adage says, when it comes to stress, “laugh it off!”
P.S. For more on laughing yoga, check out this video, Benefits of Laughter Yoga with John Cleese.
Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.
Martin, R. A. (2004). Sense of humor and physical health: Theoretical issues, recent findings, and future directions. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 17(1-2), 1-19.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vaillant, G. (1998). Adaptation to Life. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.
This article appears in the Positive Psychology News book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.
Day 79 (stress, narrowed focus) courtesy of margolove.
Sleepless courtesy of Gabriela Camerotti
Swing courtesy of David
The Moment (child in swing) courtesy of Ashlee
The Hair courtesy of Jimi.rose