In honor of Veterans Day, and in partnership with VET Tv, whose mission is to bring the military community together with laughter, we give you the 411 on how cracking up can improve your mental game for everything from Spartan Races to life’s challenges.
Stress relief from laughter is no joke. Believe it or not, according to science and experts, it not only works to help you decompress but also may mitigate self-imposed, performance-inhibiting mental pressure.
“Everyone needs to laugh at themselves occasionally,” says Lauren Rich, L.C.S.W. with several years’ experience treating military combat veterans via “no-bullshit” therapy. “Even if competing is your livelihood, taking yourself too seriously can increase psychological pressure. Starting every workout with a smile can have benefits, especially when we feel everything in life is out of our control, (i.e. injuries, lengthy surgeries, etc.).”
How Stress Impacts You: Short + Long Term
When you’re under pressure, whether it’s from an intense Spartan Race coming up, or from extenuating life circumstances, stress can pile up fast and furious. Ignore it, and you will inevitably pay the price. Short term, you may feel pain, nausea, constipation, and have trouble sleeping or eating, among other stress-symptoms. Long term, if your brain-body connection runs on stress, you run a higher risk of developing chronic diseases and negatively impacting your vitality.
In short, your attitude and psychological state has the power to break you, Rich says. And while it’s unrealistic to believe you can stop all negative thoughts, choosing a positive attitude, smiling or laughing, or opting for an upbeat workout playlist over one with violent lyrics may help change your mental game.
The Health Benefits of Laughter For Stress Relief
Laughter is an often-overlooked tool to naturally relieve stress and get better results. “[Though] the correlation between laughter and performance has not [yet] been proven, it would be logical to think that laughter releases positive chemicals that are similar to chemicals released while exercising, eating chocolate, or having sex,” Rich says.
According to a recent study from the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, spontaneous laughter (in response to a stimulus, like your favorite sitcom) boosts your mood, increases your pain tolerance and oxygen levels, improves your immune response, and positively impacts your physiological state.
The study also speculates on the efficacy of doctor-approved laughter prescriptions, a.k.a. laughter exercises — intentional periods of time carved out to kick back and guffaw. Such laughter “treatments” occurring once a week for 30-60 minutes, and as little as 20 minutes, in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy, can have a positive impact on one’s mental and physiological health.
Rich often assigns the veterans she treats homework in the form of monitoring what they watch on TV noting how negative it may or may not be (like the evening news versus lighthearted comedy). She then asks them to limit what’s negative and choose what’s positive. “While laughter can’t heal us from past trauma entirely, it’s certainly beneficial,” she says. Interestingly, Rich also practices what she preaches. “After a day of trauma therapy, I find myself watching shows like Seinfeld or The Office to wash some of the negativity out of my brain, with the intention of increasing my mood.”
Laughter + 'The Shared Experience' = GOLD
VET Tv is a streaming network that creates comedic television shows about the military experience to improve mental health amongst veterans. Considered “Parody with a Purpose” by its creators, its shows are crafted by veterans, for veterans. And Rich, who had been using VET Tv content in sessions, approached its founder and creator Captain Donny O’Malley, U.S.M.C., O.E.F., last year to discuss exactly why and how comedic relief was working to improve the mental status of the veterans she treats.
Together, O’Malley and Rich went through every episode of VET Tv’s series A Grunt's Life, breaking down its elements like incompetent leadership, working with foreign allies, and witnessing violence, to explain how dark humor helps veterans process.
What they found, however, was that laughter was an accessory bonus to the primary healer: the shared experience.
“Dark humor has a special place in most veterans' hearts. It’s part of what makes the transition to civilian life so awkward,” says Rich. “But this is secondary to what VET Tv works for on a deeper level. In my opinion, part of the reason they’re so successful is because they have captured shared experiences of veterans and created a place where people feel understood.”
This, she says, is exactly what makes VET Tv and Spartan Race so similar: OCR athletes connect over brutal conditions and rigorous obstacles to cross the finish line for the shared experience of pushing themselves to the limit. Laughing about it not only alleviates mental pressure but also normalizes that shared experience — which can be relentless, harsh, and grim at moments.
So in honor of Veterans Day, and in line with our mission, and that of VET Tv — to improve mental health through uplifting shared experiences — here are the ways cracking up can lighten your load, and may get you better results in life, overall.
Laughter: How It’s The Underrated Ingredient to Healing, And Crushing It
1. It Creates Room for Positivity, and Cuts Down on Catastrophizing
Negative or self-deprecating thoughts can wreak havoc on your belief in your abilities, which in turn can decrease your performance. If you can laugh, you are essentially creating an opportunity to shift into a positive mindset. “Laughter releases not just those feel-good chemicals called endorphins but also the neurotransmitter, serotonin,” says Lara Pence, PsyD and Chief Mind Doc at Spartan Race. “This floods the mind with a more feel-good state that allows the athlete easier access to positive thoughts that can crush, and challenges those negative ones.” Humor and laughter, she says, also reduces catastrophic thinking (like “I can’t” or “It’s over, I might as well give up now”).
“Sometimes poor performance in a competition can feel like the end of the world to an athlete,” says Pence. “Being able to take a different perspective — even a silly one — can remind athletes that doing poorly in a competition is actually not the end of the world, despite their thinking.”
2. It Motivates You, And Increases Your Resiliency
When you laugh, your brain’s chemistry changes substantially. The endorphins and serotonin that laughter releases play a major role in helping you feel better. When you feel better, you’re more game for the journey of achieving, rather than clinging to the results themselves. This may sound counterintuitive because of course, ideally you’ll crush the finish line, but by putting yourself into a positive state, you foster inner motivation to do so more effectively than you would in a negative state.
“This brain chemistry helps in motivation and increased openness all around to a positive experience, no matter what,” says Pence. “It also helps combat stress. If we are regularly engaging in laughter and finding humor through various avenues, we are priming our systems to feel more resilient to stress.”
3. It Puts Tough Stuff Into Perspective
Every human is vulnerable to negative thinking patterns that create and contribute to stress. Especially so for Spartan athletes, who put their performance out into the public arena of the race course and must face the possibility of “failure” at each event. “The uncertainty and risk Spartans expose themselves to becomes a breeding ground for doubt and insecurity,” Pence says. “When you are surrounded by greatness, it’s natural to question your own, and negativity bias and confirmation bias are real psychological phenomena that can exacerbate any self doubt — not to mention, for many athletes, their identity becomes intertwined with their performance.”
Laughter and humor can not only act as a buffer from the seriousness of racing but can also provide Spartans with a much-needed dose of relief. “Endorphins and serotonin are key to flooding the brain with a feel-good experience, but laughter also allows the athlete to ground him or herself in ALL of life’s endeavors — the serious and the not so serious.”