Laugh it up for good health

Reasons to laugh Laughter therapy offers the following health benefits Physical Boosts immunity by decreasing stress hormones Lowers stress hormones Decreases pain Relaxes your muscles Protects the heart by improving blood flow Mental Adds joy to life Eases anxiety and fear by releasing endorphins Relieves stress Improves mood Enhances resilience Social Strengthens relationships Attracts others to us Enhances teamwork Helps defuse conflict Promotes group bonding Source: University of Maryland 2005 study

Naperville resident Madeline Holstrom has a favorite phrase: “Don’t let your twinkle dim.”

Once you meet her, it makes perfect sense why that is her philosophy. Holstrom possesses a deep joy and zest for life, which exudes from her funky socks to her bright face, and that makes her an ideal candidate to be a certified laughter leader.

Yes, there is such a thing, and it was made for people just like Holstrom.

“Laughter is a gift we are born with. Babies (as early as 6 weeks old) will laugh and smile. They can’t talk, but they know how to laugh and express joy,” Holstrom said, a smile beaming on her own warm face. “Laughter is a universal language.”

Holstrom, 71, has been in the business of spreading the benefits of laughter since she retired several years ago after 38 years as a dental assistant. She had remarried, and she felt the daily 100-mile round trips from Naperville to the far south suburbs for work was getting too stressful.

Once retired, Holstrom volunteered at many organizations, “helping out wherever I could,” she said, including delivering Meals on Wheels. Still, she was looking for something else to do, and the inspiration came from her older sister.

“I have always loved to laugh. People (at the dental offices) could always hear me laughing and talking. So, my sister said, ‘Why don’t you use your gift of laughter?” Holstrom said, breaking into a small chuckle. “So, I thought I would just Google laughter and see what came up.”

What her search found was an organization called The World Laughter Tour ( Based in Columbus, Ohio, the organization was founded in 1998 by American psychologist Steve Wilson after years of studying the positive health benefits of humor and laughter.

Holstrom’s interest was piqued, and her husband supported her efforts by paying for her to attend the required two-day workshop in Ohio for training. “And I have been laughing ever since,” she giggled.

The training includes the psychology and physiology of laughter, attitudinal healing and how to organize and conduct therapeutic laughter programs.

At first, Holstrom practiced on friends and family before getting her first professional gig as a laughter leader. She now conducts about one or two sessions a week for many organizations and groups with wide-ranging audiences, from teachers to seniors at assisted living or nursing homes to young children and church groups. She just started at the Oswego Senior Center.

So, what is a laughter therapy session like? One thing you will not find are jokes.

“I don’t do jokes. We don’t want to tell jokes that could offend anyone. What we do is build on ways to find laughter and fun in what we are doing,” Holstrom said.

Her programs incorporate easy yoga and simple exercise, music (live or recorded), visualization, games and, of course, props — everything from bubbles to balls. She has a seemingly endless supply of silly hats.

She begins each 45-minute session with deep breathing for the audience to clear out stress and begin the relaxation process. Next, she leads a series of vocal exercises that amount to laugh warmups.

“ I begin with asking everyone to make a ‘he he’ sound. Then we go to ‘ha ha’ and from there to a deeper ‘ho ho,’” Holstrom said, demonstrating the exercise. “By doing that, we are using our facial muscles and our abdominal (muscles). And we are raising endorphins.”

From there, she will lead people in clapping and then asking them to stand up, facing the person next to them and smile while shaking hands. This works for all age groups, she said, because people need to connect to other people.

While she does customize her sessions to fit her audience, one thing she keeps constant is the interactive element. Her mission only works if people are participating.

Lest anyone think this laughter therapy is all fun and games, Holstrom takes her work seriously.

She needs to be in shape, she said, because laughter, fun and creativity not only stimulate the brain, there is a physical aspect to this as well.

In addition, Holstrom receives ongoing training and re-certification through webinars and attending weekend seminars throughout the year.

Her work is truly successful, she said, if the people she meets continue to build on what they have learned through her programs. Participation is just the beginning. She wants her clients to commit to a sense of play and fun in their everyday lives.

“We all need playfulness at all ages,” she said.

Happiness is contagious, according to an old adage, and Holstrom is a committed carrier.

Her secret is simple, she said.

It’s gratitude.

“Get up and be grateful everyday. If you are grateful you will be happy,” Holstrom said, with a smile on her face.


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