Science behind laughter, crying and stress

Dr. Wahied Khawar Balwan
Our thoughts, intentions, decisions and actions are directed by our emotions. Emotions triggers the release of different hormones in human body which affect our mood and these biological messengers are responsible to regulate normal functioning of tissues and organs especially the human brain. There exists a scientific interplay between our emotions and the released hormones. Positive and negative emotions are essentially required to be channelized in different situations and age-groups of human life. This can be exercised only if we are well aware of the scientific story behind our emotions.
Ben Goertzel has defined emotions as “A mental state that does not arise through free will, and is often accomplished by physiological changes”. Our emotions indeed serve as a delicate and sophisticated internal guidance system at every moment of our life. When we feel lonely, we need a company as needed by our emotions. When we feel afraid, we need safety as guided by our emotions or when we feel sad, we need to be consoled as demanded by our emotions. Goleman’s 1995 book on emotional intelligence presented the importance of our emotions for survival, decision making, predicting behavior, boundary settings, communication, happiness, unity etc. Our brain is the controlling authority of our emotions. Hormones are one of the important factors operating to produce a particular pattern of emotional behavior under different circumstances.
We always think that our hormones control our emotions. However, it is the other way round, emotions control our hormones through biochemical changes in our brain. Laughter, anger, crying and stress issues trigger the release of these chemicals or hormones to maintain the balance in our body. The present article aims to summarize some of the hormonal changes associated with these four emotions with addition to some associated scientific facts.
Mark Twain once said “The human race has only one really active weapon, and that’s laughter”.
Laughter is a complex process of our body which involves complicated activities of our brain. There are different theories to underline the causes of our laughter. According to Relief theory, we need a release of our emotions through our laugh. The Incongruity Theory explains that we laugh when our logic doesn’t match with a situation or a joke. This is infact the basic principle of a comedian. When he or she dictates a joke, the audience tries to understand the same. When the latter realize that the consistency of the joke doesn’t match with their logical expectations, it makes them laugh at the end. Superior theory is another theory of laugh. This implies when we consider ourselves superior to someone else and we laugh at their ignorance and mistakes.
According to Robert Provine, psychologist and neuroscientist from the University of Maryland, comedians laugh 46% more than the listeners. It is based on their subconscious thinking that if they laugh, the audience is likely to laugh. This subsequently makes the speaker more comfortable while performing. When we laugh, there is release of healthy hormones. Endorphins and interferon gamma (IFN) are two vital ones within the cocktail.Endorphins are released from the pituitary glands. Endo means endogenous and orphin refers to morphine. These are endogenous opiod peptides, just like morphine secreted in our body without any side effects. Endorphins act as natural pain killers. We feel happy and calm when these are released in our body. However, Endorphins remain in our blood for a few seconds. These also protect us from stress, hypertension and depression, increase our memory and keep us healthy and cheerful. Interferon gamma activates T cells, B cells, immunoglobulin and NK cells in our body. This helps to fight viruses, strengthens our immune system and regulates cells growth.
About 2000 years ago, Physician Galen stated that cheerful women have lesser probability of getting cancer than depressed women. According to a 1989 study, laughter can decrease the serum levels of cortisol, dopac, epinephrine and growth hormone. Cortisol is commonly called the stress hormone. It is released by the adrenal glands whenever we recognize a threat or tension.
When we laugh, we make gestures and sounds and our facial muscles contract. A 2010 study published in FASEB journal reported that our body responds to repetitive laughter and repetitive exercise in a similar manner.
Tears play an important role in our biological and social experiences. In the words of cultural historian, Thomas Dixon, “Tears are intellectual things. They are produced both by thoughts and the lachrymal glands.” Shakespeare said “To weep is to make less grief”.
Tears are advanced form of our body excretions. They can be categorized into three types namely Basal tears, Reflex tears and Emotional tears.
Basal tears are formed continuously. They are secreted by the lachrymal gland under the upper eyelid. Every time we blink, basal tears are spread over the surface of our eyeball. It causes eye lubrication and prevents our eyes to completely dry out. Basal tears are composed of water, little mucus (which allows them to adhere to the eye surface), nutrients, glucose, lysozyme (antibacterial enzyme), lipocalin (protein transporter), urea, potassium and sodium. These tears travel to the nose through the tear duct which renders our nose moist and inhibits bacterial infection. Human body produces an average of 5 to 10 ounces of basal tears each day. Basal tears are never referred to as crying. They are merely denoted as the secretions of lachrymal fluid. When these secretions overwhelm the draining capacity of the tear duct, it is called the crying process. Reflex tears and emotional tears are generally considered within the crying process.
Our body has its own processes to remove toxins and excess stress hormones. Emotional tears serve as one of these processes to release stress and tension and wash the toxic chemicals out of our bodies. Human beings are believed to be the only living creatures to shed emotional tears. However, Charles Darwin has pointed out in “The Expressions of the emotions in Man and Animals” that zoo keepers told him about elephants which shed tears in sorrow. Dr. Willian Frey, biochemist and tear experts studied the composition of our tears and concluded that emotional tears contain stress hormones contrary to basal and reflex tears. When crying like emotions get registered into the brain, the cerebrum triggers the release of hormones which travels to the glands behind our eyes (ocular area) and causes emotional tears. Emotional tears mainly contain three chemicals namely Leucine encephalin-A mood elevating and pain decreasing endrophine, Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)- a hormone released during stress and Prolactin- a hormone which regulates milk production in mammals. Emotional tears have 24% higher protein concentration than in reflex tears. According to Journal of Social and Clinical psychology, crying has its own benefits. We feel better after a good cry. Manganese is involved in regulating our moods and depressed people contain higher levels of manganese in their system. Emotional tears remove concentrated manganese from our body since they have 30 times greater manganese compared to the blood serum.
In the words of stress physiologist Hans Salye, “Stress in the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it”. We generally associate stress to negative situations. However, if our lives are completely devoid of stress, then we will be incapable to react to the different challenges of life. The optimal positive stress level prevalent in an individual is referred to as eustress while harmful stress is known as distress. Stress is popularly defined as time pressure. An individual feels stressed when sufficient time is not available to perform the scheduled task. However, this definition doesn’t apply to all. Actually stress denotes a highly individualized experience and is not exclusively time pressure dependent.
Stress includes the release of wide range hormones. These are two major classes of stress hormones, catecholamines (adrenaline and nor-adrenaline) and the glucocorticoids (cortisol). Whenever a stressful situation arises, brain sends message to the adrenal gland which releases the flight or fight, adrenaline. Our heart starts pounding when our muscles are tense, our breathing gets faster and we start sweating. This is adrenaline. Another hormone norepinephrine is released from the adrenal glands. It keeps us more awake and focused during stress. Therefore, sometimes we suffer from insomnia during stress. Cortisol is another stress steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is released in a multistep process. First, amygdale in the brain recognizes a stressful situation. It then sends a message to the hypothalamus to release corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH).
CRH triggers the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland. This hormone then triggers the adrenal glands to produce Cortisol. An optimum level of Cortisol helps to maintain our fluid balance and blood pressure. It also aids in the regulation of reproductive drive, proper glucose metabolism, blood pressure regulation, immunity, digestion and growth. However, a higher level of Cortisol hampers the immune system, blood pressure and sugar levels. It causes obesity and decreases bone density. Long time stress exposure causes complete impairment of reproductive functions and also affects the thyroid secretions. Different people have different levels of Cortisol secretion. People who secrete more Cortisol tend to eat more food rich in carbohydrates compared to the people who secrete less Cortisol. A different research has reported that endorphins play an important role in response to stress and to the functions of adrenocorticotrophin. A study presented at 2007 Society for neuroscience meeting reported that hormone oxytocin has important effects under stressful conditions.
(The author is Sr. Assistant Professor Department of Zoology Govt. Degree (PG) College Bhaderwah, J&K)