Sometimes it takes falling flat on your face to understand why humor is such an important part of building stress resilience.
Not long ago a couple of my friends and I decided to repair some rotting boards on my deck. This involved tearing up old planks to make space for the new ones. At one point, I was on my knees trying to pull up a decayed slat with all my might.
Little did I know, my friend Karyn had just finished cutting into another panel next to me. When I attempted to use that board for leverage, it gave way sending me hurling face first into the jagged beams below. Searing pain tore from my left cheekbone to my forehead. The world was blurry, and I felt like a cartoon character with stars spinning around her head.
As I pushed my way up, I met Karyn’s worried eyes. “Are you OK?” she whispered. “I think so,” I replied. Then we both burst out laughing. We laughed so hard that it hurt – literally – and I thought my head was going to explode from the pain and the vibration of my laughter. In that moment, skinned, bloodied, and covered in sawdust, I realized that I’d just survived a pretty spectacular face plant.
One of the things that I love about yoga is that it is filled with metaphors for life. Several times each year, I teach what I call the “face plant” class. Although the objective is not to fall flat on your face, it requires you to flirt with your fears and learn to fall gracefully (and safely). The class includes a number of reflections on perfectionism, humor, and a sequence of preparatory postures that culminate in Bakasana, or Crow pose.
Crow pose involves planting your hands into the floor with your shoulders above your wrists, engaging your core and hugging your inner thighs into your relatively straight upper arms. Then, if possible, your feet leave the floor, your hips rise into the air and your body hovers above the ground face down. Some crows take flight; others collapse in a heap –sometimes face first.
Crow pose was the first yogic arm balance that I set my sights on learning. I approached it with determined ferocity, convinced that with enough power and precision, I could take flight. I was wrong. Crow pose is as much about surrender as it is about strength and tenacity. The more I tried to force it, the more often I fell.
"As is true for much of life, sometimes you soar and sometimes you crash. The highs and lows are simply constant reminders that we are, indeed, human. Falling is inevitable. What determines whether
or not you suffer is how you get back up."
Falling came with intense frustration. I was overcome with internal admonishments and feelings of failure. In time, however, I realized that Crow pose has little to do with nailing the pose and everything to do with how you fall out of it. After all, in the grand scheme of the things, it’s just a yoga pose.
As is true for much of life, sometimes you soar and sometimes you crash. The highs and lows are simply constant reminders that we are, indeed, human. Falling is inevitable. What determines whether or not you suffer is how you get back up.
Research suggests that humor can increase our resiliency to stress.Both humor and laughter decrease the production of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, induce relaxation, stimulate circulation, improve respiration, and boost immunity. Humor also increases positive mood, and is directly related to the use of positive reappraisal and problem-solving coping strategies.
In a study of college students self-identified as either having a high or a low sense of humor, psychologist Millicent Abel found that those with a high sense of humor appraised situations as less stressful and reported lower levels of anxiety than those with low humor, despite experiencing a similar number of daily problems.
This, she suggests, supports the view that humor is associated with more effective appraisal and coping strategies, lower levels of negative emotion, less psychological distress, and reduced physiological arousal.
In a review of the research on the benefits of humor, psychologist Rod Martin notes, “A sense of humor may enable individuals to cope more effectively with stress by allowing them to gain perspective and distance themselves from a stressful situation, enhancing their feelings of mastery and wellbeing in the face of adversity.
Indeed, there is considerable experimental and correlational evidence for the stress moderating effects of humor … Individuals with a good sense of humor may cope more effectively with stress than other people do and, therefore, might also experience fewer of the adverse effects of stress on their physical health.”
Martin also discovered that humor serves an important social function: “Humorous individuals find it easier to attract friends and develop a rich social-support network and, therefore, gain well-established health benefits of social support.”
An overwhelming body of research points to social bonds as essential for developing and maintaining psychological health, and finds that those with stable, supportive relationships are happier overall. So, a little humor may go a long way to improving your health, happiness, and longevity!
Once you cease to strive for perfection and release the need for achievement, you can embrace the ups and downs of your mindfulness practice and relationships with a bit more lightness and ease. This opens the door for humor, levity, and feelings of acceptance and gratitude, all which foster social connection. It is an imperfect journey, but it is well worth the effort.
This article was adapted from Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the science of mind body and brain (Handspring Publishing, 2016),
by B Grace Bullock Ph.D Get your copy here