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How Joy Affects the Body

26 September 2023

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It seems extra important to talk about joy these days and to find ways to fill our lives with more of it. 

Did you know that managing stress and anxiety is a big factor when it comes to keeping the body in good health? When we live stressful lives or are constantly feeling the effects of anxiety, we may start to neglect our health without realizing it. Eating poorly and indulging in comfort foods, being inactive, poor sleep quality and increased blood pressure are all potential results of high stress levels. The same is true for depression, which affects nearly 4 percent of the global population. 

If anxiety and depression can lead to unhealthy lifestyles, it follows that elevated moods and a positive mental state can support better choices and improved health. People with optimistic outlooks on life have been shown to have a lower risk of heart attack and stroke, so tending to your mental health could be just as beneficial as watching your cholesterol levels!

Positive moods are associated with increased energy and motivation, which means that joyful or happy people are more likely to be physically active. This can mean that their overall health is better, since they are more inclined to exercise than someone experiencing symptoms of depression. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says, “Being physically active can improve your brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles and improve your ability to do everyday activities. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.”

That feeling of motivation and increased energy that comes with a positive mindset can create a kind of feedback loop, as well. When you feel energized from a good mood and go for a walk or to the gym, this releases more feel-good chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin) in your body. More feel-good chemicals mean more energy, so the cycle continues.

How do positive mindsets actually work in the body? Well, there are a few components. The feeling of joy comes from activity in the nervous system, specifically in our neurotransmitters. These transmitters carry chemicals throughout our bodies, including those feel-good chemicals mentioned in the previous paragraph, AKA “joy” chemicals. When you have an abundance of these chemicals in your system, your physical health improves. Better sleep, digestion, weight loss and an stronger immune system are some of the benefits of a joyful mood.

Another bodily reaction to joy takes place in the circulatory system (which sometimes also responds to negative emotions). When you feel happy, your circulatory system might respond by flushing your cheeks, raising your body temperature, or creating the feeling of “butterflies” in your stomach. While these reactions may also occur during moments of anxiety, keep in mind that they can be a good sign as well!

Guess what else? The part of your nervous system you don’t control (the autonomic nervous system), might react. It may mean quickened (or slowed, if you’re experiencing a feeling of calm) breathing, dilation of the pupils or sweating are potential side effects of a boosted mood. The reaction in your autonomic nervous system can even affect your organs since it controls the smooth muscles in your body (which your organs are lined with). Your digestive tract might feel the effects of a joyful mood, which can cause an increase or decrease in appetite. You may also notice that you’re digesting food faster than normal, another unique effect of the autonomic nervous system.

Funny enough, laughter can also have some immediate benefits on your overall health. When you laugh out loud, you instantly calm your cardiovascular system and release endorphins into your nervous system. If you’re a knee-slapping kind of laugher, the movements you make during a giggle fit also produce calm feelings and reduce stress. Laughter increases your heart rate, which sends blood and oxygen to the brain, leading to a sense of clarity and calmness. Even the simple act of smiling tells the body that it’s okay to relax (you don’t even have to mean it!) Faking a smile does the trick as far as your nervous system is concerned.

Seeking out things that make you joyful is one way to keep those happy chemicals rolling in. You might try spending more time with loved ones, picking up a hobby you enjoy, learning new things, avoiding potential emotional triggers (like alcohol or overeating), reading a great book, watching a comedy or even petting a dog. Choosing an activity and focusing on it is a great way to help your brain relax and put stress and anxious thoughts to the side, even if just for a little while.

Of course, the benefits of seeking professional psychological help cannot be overlooked here: talking to a therapist or working with a psychiatrist to find a medication regimen if appropriate are sometimes the first steps to creating lasting, positive change in your life. Starting on an antidepressant or mood stabilizer is the boost some people need to start doing the things they know will help them, like exercising or spending more time with friends.

In our modern world, it’s easy to lose track of the simple pleasures in life. We may start to quantify our happiness with tangible items or measures of success, which have no guarantee of lasting happiness. While setting goals is a great way to keep your focus and build confidence, it is not the end-all, be-all to personal growth or satisfaction. If you notice that your feelings of stress tend to stem from outside pressures to meet certain goals, take a step back and decide for yourself what really makes you happy, and seek that out…it’s for your health!

For more health and wellness information, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.

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