Healthy Living — 23 February 2012
Stress – It IS a Laughing Matter!

Nurses deal with stress every hour of every working day – and some deal with it better than others! There is plenty of research that shows that laughter can help to relieve stress – and that a liberal dose of humor may be the best medicine. Any experienced nurse can cite the source of work-related stress: taking care of increasingly sick patients in an environment over which the nurse has little control with frequent and random interruptions and an enormous workload. Add to that the often held perception that the bedside nurse is under-appreciated by his superiors and you have the perfect recipe for stress in the workplace.


When an individual perceives a threat, the nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones get the body for emergency action. The heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, respirations become more rapid, and senses become sharper. These physical changes increase strength and stamina, speed reaction time, and enhance focus for a brief period of time – preparing the individual to either fight or flee from the threat. Stress within limits is a life saving mechanism. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to the individual’s health, mood, productivity, and quality of life. Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even be a precursor to severe anxiety and clinical depression.

Benefits of Laughter



Short-term effects

A good laugh has many beneficial short-term effects. When you start to laugh, the mental load lightens and the laughter induces physical changes in your body. Laughter increases the heart and respiratory rate and has been shown to increase the release of endorphins. Muscles are tightened during laughter – followed by great relaxation when the laughter subsides. This period of relaxation is what tends to reduce the symptoms of stress.

Long-term effects

Studies indicate that laughter may produce longer lasting effects. The act of laughing may cause the release of neuropeptides that help fight stress. These peptides in and from the brain are hormones that control things such as sleep and analgesia. These natural painkillers may have a profound effect on the individual’s stress level and ability to cope with stress. Active research is being done on these neuropeptides to determine all the actions that may be controlled by them.

Hit Your Funny Bone

So, in an often very unfunny profession such as nursing, what can we do to make ourselves laugh? There are some very simple things that can be done in the work place to make everyone laugh. Be aware that what is funny to one person may not be at all funny to another, so try to use more than one technique to get everyone laughing. And if you make it a unit activity, more people will participate – and it is much more likely that you will hear laughter in the halls.

Find photos or comics that make you laugh and put them on a staff “Funny Bone” bulletin board. Unless they are appropriate for public viewing, be sure the bulletin board is in a staff only area. However, it might also be worthwhile to consider such a bulletin board for public areas; a sick patient or family of a sick patient may need a “laugh break”, too.

Practice laughing. Do this one in the car or in your room at home first as attempts at making yourself laugh will be forced initially. Just laugh – yes, it will be fake, but the very act may make you laugh in earnest. Besides, your body won’t know the difference between fake laughter and real laughter. The physical benefits really are the same. Laughing for ten minutes each day can burn as many as 50 calories. So, if anyone catches you laughing, you can always say you are doing your exercises.
Laugh with others. Especially at work, though, be sensitive to where you are when you are laughing. A sick patient will find nothing funny about a group of people standing in the nurse’s station laughing.

Don’t laugh at the expense of others. Use your best judgment to discern a good joke from a bad, or hurtful, one. If you have a question about whether a joke is funny or appropriate, it probably is not – so don’t tell it.
Instead of complaining about the frustrations of the job, try to laugh about them. Approach life with a laugh ready and you will be less stressed about negative events.

Documentation of the effects of humor on various health related outcomes in healthy populations is still in the infancy stages, and research documenting benefits in a clinical population is yet to be established; however, if there is a group that needs some humor in their lives, nurses are in that group.


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About Author

I am a Master's prepared Registered Nurse with 20+ years clinical experience and 10+ years clinical, quality and technical writing and quality improvement experience. Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified.

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