How Laughter Therapy Can Help with Stress, Sleep, and Beyond

When you’re stressed out or anxious, that weird meme your friend sent you might actually help.

Standing woman with yoga mat laughing
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You might have texted “ROFL,” but are you actually rolling on the floor laughing? Don’t hold that laughter back because it might be in your best interest for both your mental and physical health.

The power of laughter for physiological benefits is already well-documented. A 2016 study found an association between those who laugh frequently each day with a lowered risk of heart disease and stroke. But research shows that laughter may also help with stress, anxiety, and even insomnia — which is why it’s worth incorporating some funny business into your day.

What Is Laughter Therapy?

Laughter therapy, also known as therapeutic humor, entails bringing humor into a clinical setting with a licensed social worker or therapist in order to help you work through and come to terms with difficult emotions or challenges. With roots in positive psychology, it’s now a growing field in the mental health space.

“We have a ton of research on laughter and mirth and how they affect the body, improving sleep and stress,” says Megan Werner, a licensed psychotherapist in Fayetteville, Arkansas, who specializes in the practice.

Laughter is a mind-body meld: It actually reduces the levels of stress hormones, such as epinephrine and cortisol, while simultaneously stimulating the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system, which is known to mediate pleasure and rewarding experiences.

That ultimately has a widespread effect throughout the body. In one study in which people over the age of 60 watched a weekly stand-up comedy routine, participants experienced a reduction in pain, lower blood pressure, and enhanced serotonin levels. In another, patients in long-term care facilities who participated in twice-weekly laughter therapy sessions — consisting of stretching, singing, laughing aloud, doing laughing exercises, clapping, and dancing — reported improvements in both sleep and depression. It’s now used for cancer patients as an adjunct therapy; “laughter therapy” even appears in the National Cancer Institute’s Dictionary of Cancer Terms.

It’s capable of tackling serious trauma, too. “A lot of people assume that laughter therapy is very frivolous and only applies to ‘light’ mental illnesses, like the common cold of mental health,” says Werner. But she takes severe trauma cases no one else takes — working with Syrian refugees, for instance — and applies laughter therapy among these patients to surprising success.

Yes, Laughter Therapy Really Works — Here’s How

The most obvious form of laughter therapy is humorous laughter — humor being the concept, and laughter being the physiological reaction. This is the belly-aching, tears-streaming kind of laughter from, say, watching “Bill Hader breaking character” clips on YouTube or seeing your brother’s baby spit up on him. (We all have our preferences.)

It can be as much a therapy tool as a stress-relief trigger. For instance, Werner has employed a form of improv in group sessions to get young people in detention centers to open up when they wouldn’t otherwise. (The inspiration: The Obama Anger Translator skit from Key & Peele.) “They had no idea of what their partner was going to say, but they got to really take it over the edge,” she says. “The absurdities and the ridiculousness of it always ended with a roar of laughter.”

Then, there’s non-humorous (or self-induced) laughter, which one systemic review of existing research in Social Science & Medicine found may be more effective than spontaneous laughter. Also known as “simulated laughter,” the fake-it-til-you-make-it type of laughter was found to have a positive effect on depression and anxiety.

Lastly, there’s laughter yoga — one of the best-known forms of self-induced laughter. It’s a combination of laughter exercises, deep yogic breathing exercises, and mindful meditation.

“Participants who I have laughed with have reported feeling uplifted and energized, yet more centered and calm after the session,” says Alexa Fong Drubay, a laughter-yoga master trainer who studied with laughing-yoga founder Dr. Madan Kataria. “I have received feedback from laughter-club members and clients telling me that their anxiety levels have decreased, and their sleep has improved.”

The one caveat? Laughter therapy has to be used in the right way. “I can pick up on when people use laughter to deflect or as a defense mechanism,” says Werner. But this is more common in interpersonal situations, like with a therapist — meaning there’s little risk when you’re DIYing it. For that, consider these expert suggestions.

Have a Laughter Journal

Laughter therapy techniques are particularly helpful for those with initial insomnia, which is difficulty falling asleep. “If you aren’t mentally and physically relaxed, you’ll have more trouble settling down for sleep,” says Dr. Shelby Harris, a licensed clinical psychologist in White Plains, New York. “Plus, if you fall asleep in a more tense state, it’s likely that what’s on your mind while falling asleep will be there in the middle of the night.”

For this, Werner recommends keeping a laughter journal — like a gratitude journal, but for funny moments. Just write down three things that made you laugh that day. In doing this before bed, “you're stopping intrusive thoughts,” she explains.

Get a Group Together

Not only has Werner found anecdotal success in her group laughter-therapy sessions, but so do studies. The systemic review mentioned earlier found that group dynamics can help stimulate laughter — after all, laughter’s contagious. (Exhibit A: Nearly every SNL cast member breaking character in a single skit.) Karaoke, anyone?

Do a Pre-Bed Happy Baby

You might recognize happy baby as an actual yoga pose in which you lie on your back and hold onto the instep of your feet, rocking side to side on your spine. Before bed, try it while laughing gently or creating some easy laughter sounds.

“This helps us take deep breaths and can help to calm the parasympathetic nervous system and serves as a gentle release before bedtime,” says Fong Drubay.

Draw It Out

In a merging of laughter and cognitive behavioral therapies, Werner uses the humor reframe technique. In most cases, you can do this by drawing out the scenario — so, if you’re struggling with a fear of heights, start with a stick figure on a cliff.

“Then, add as much ridiculousness into that drawing as possible,” says Werner. “The more ridiculous it is, the stronger the effect it's going to have.” Her recs: Add a purple dragon flying below, draw it holding a tray of margaritas, and turn that cliff into a marshmallow.

Then, put your artwork somewhere prominent, like on the fridge. Every time you see it, “you’re priming your thought process,” says Werner. “The fear of heights no longer becomes a panic situation that then goes into a debilitating panic attack. Instead, you think of this weird dragon and these margaritas that it's carrying.”

Bizarre? Sure — but that’s exactly the point.

A Happy Way to End the Day

As silly as laughter therapy may seem, research and experts all agree that this mind-body meld points us in the right direction for both our mental and emotional health. Laughter, in so many syllables, is also a way of connecting with other people, even if it’s just a TV show with a laugh track. Whether you prefer a solo giggle session or enjoy a collective LOL with friends, making some time in your bedtime routine for laughter can help prepare your mind for a positive night of sleep, rather than an anxious run of thoughts.

Need recommendations for pre-bedtime laughter? Try these hilarious podcasts, shows, books, and movies that dads love, or snooze away to adult bedtime stories. You might even want to read up on why everything is funnier when you’re tired.

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