Forgetting How to Laugh: An Overlooked Sign of Burnout
The Mayo Clinic found that laughing has an immediate effect on your stress response by stimulating circulation and relaxing your muscles.
Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air that stimulates your vital organs and triggers your brain to release those “feel good” endorphins throughout your body. Laughter really is the best medicine.
So why do we “forget” to laugh when we’re burned out?
I first noticed this connection when one of the participants in my research on burnout during organizational change mentioned that one of her first signs of burnout was losing her sense of humor.
Think about the last time that you were stressed out:
- Did it seem like it was just “too much work” to find the humor in a stressful situation?
- Did you actually get angry when a coworker or family member kidded or teased you about something?
- Did you even consciously try to prevent yourself from laughing at something that you would have normally found to be funny?
- Were you afraid that if you did allow yourself to start laughing…you might end up crying instead?
One of the things that constantly surprises me is how many adults tend to snicker, giggle, or just smile rather than let themselves full out belly laugh. I’m not sure if it’s that laughing out loud is somehow “not cool” – or if we are simply taking ourselves too seriously.
Even worse, what if the lack of laughter or a sense of humor is directly proportionate to the level of burnout that someone is experiencing?
Whatever the reason, when was the last time that you actually laughed out loud?
How Laughter Reduces Stress
Although we intuitively know that we feel better after a good laugh, there has been a growing body of research investigating the physical changes that occur during and after laughter.
In addition to the short-term effects relating to endorphins, laughter stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles. It also specifically targets your body’s stress response by initially increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, then “cooling down” that stress response. Stress and burnout usually manifest in tightened muscles – but a good laugh aids in muscle relaxation. The result: an immediate positive, relaxed feeling.
If you laugh frequently, you will also experience some substantial long-term benefits. Over time, stress compromises your immune system. The positive feelings associated with laughter release neuropeptides that not only fight the stress, but also protect your body from more serious illnesses. Laughter even produces its own natural pain killers; for people with certain types of muscle disorders, a good laugh can actually break the pain-spasm cycle.
And people who laugh seem to be happier, more personally satisfied, and have better relationships with the people around them.
Learning How to Laugh Again
Laughing is closely linked to happiness – it’s difficult to feel burned out and stay burned out when you are happy and laughing.
But can you make someone laugh? Even master stand-up comics aren’t “funny” to everyone, so telling a joke might not work.
Here are two ways to reduce your stress by laughing – particularly when you’re too stressed out to think that anything is funny.
- Anticipation…just THINKING about something funny can trigger the beneficial effects of laughter.
In a study conducted at Loma Linda University in California, researchers discovered that seeking out positive experiences that make you laugh can significantly impact your body’s ability to stay well.
Just anticipating “mirthful laughter” releases beta-endorphins (that alleviate depression) and human growth hormone (HGH, which support the immune system). Such anticipation also decreases levels of three important stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and dopac).
As your stress levels decrease, your overall wellness increases – and laughter is a great way to reduce stress.
- Laughing yoga.
Yes, there really is such a practice! Created by an Indian medical doctor, laughter yoga is usually conducted in groups and appears to tap into the joyful inner child that often lies dormant in all of us.
An interesting finding is that the body’s responses to the act of laughing are not based on whether the laughter is real or fake. In other words, simply laughing (even if you might not initially think that there is anything funny) generates the same physiological and psychological benefits.
Can’t laugh if you can’t find anything funny? Think again: have you ever noticed that when you force yourself to laugh…you tend to start finding your laughter funny…and then you laugh even more? If you’re in a group, the more you laugh, the more everyone around you will start laughing, too — and the overall stress levels in the group will decrease. (My friends and I used to call this a “laugh attack.”)
Little children are great at making laughter contagious: when one starts laughing, suddenly all of them find it hysterically funny and keep on laughing…and laughing…and laughing.
Even though stressed out parents are creating stressed out kids, our innate inner child is curious, joyful, happy, and stress-free. No matter how old we are chronologically, that inner child wants to come out to play and laugh. Laughter can be a great way to tap into the creativity and joy in the child in all of us.
Laughter may truly be the best medicine to reduce the stress in our lives. It’s free, feels good, and has long-lasting benefits.
So, in addition to eating that apple a day to keep the doctor away, let’s all try to have a good belly laugh every day to keep burnout away! Ho, ho, ho! 🙂
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout: Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources. An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI. To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com.