June 24, 2011 at 9:26 AM ET
Be careful how hard you laugh at some of this summer’s blockbuster comedies. "Bridesmaids," "Horrible Bosses" or "The Hangover" sequel could just be the death of you.
“Years ago, I went to see 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' with a friend and I thought I was going to die laughing,” says Jim Dailakis, a 41-year-old comedian from Queens, N.Y. “We had this brutal karate instructor who looked just like this little golden head that Harrison Ford holds up at one point. I saw that head and started howling like a girl. And then I couldn’t catch my breath and had to think of something else so I wouldn’t pass out.”
Dailakis, who says he’s usually goaded into uncontrollable laughing fits by his buddies, says he’s actually blacked out laughing over the years.
“The first time it happened, I thought I was going to die,” he says. “I was on my knees laughing, and then suddenly I couldn’t breathe. It was scary and freaky but I couldn’t stop laughing. And then I began to weep uncontrollably and I thought that was so hilarious, I went into another manic fit of laughter. My friend was laughing so hard, he had to leave the room.”
After that, Dailakis saw stars -- then passed out.
“The next thing I knew, I was lying down and looking up,” he says. “And I could still hear my friend laughing in the next room.”
According to Dr. Martin Samuels, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, blacking out while laughing may be related to over-breathing, and is probably not too dangerous.
“This is most likely benign and unlikely that it would lead to death,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean death doesn’t sometimes wear a smile. In the third century B.C., the Greek philosopher Chrysippus was said to have died laughing after getting his donkey drunk on wine. More recently, a Danish audiologist died laughing in 1989 while watching "A Fish Called Wanda." (It's also the subject of an old Monty Python sketch, in which a writer pens the "funniest joke in the world" -- and immediately dies.)
“Happy news is just as dangerous as sad news with regard to the risk of sudden death,” he says. “I have cases of people who died after hitting holes in one, after bowling perfect 300 games and upon hearing the words ‘Not Guilty.’ Death during sexual activity is also well known. Ecstasy, happiness and good news are definitely risky.”
Why would good news or happy circumstances put us at risk? It’s all about that old fight-or-flight response, he says.
“Extreme excitement, whether that be sadness or happiness activates the part of the brain that’s responsible for the flight or fight response to threats in the wild,” he says. “This releases a natural chemical -- adrenaline -- which in large animals can be toxic to various organs, in particular the heart.”
As a result, extremely strong emotional states -- whether positive or negative -- can be harmful to the heart, on rare occasions causing an abnormal rhythm which can be lethal.
Dailakis says his laughter blackouts used to bother him, but now that he knows what to expect, he’s not worried.
“Afterward, I feel exhausted but so alive,” he says. “I wouldn’t change it for the world. Why should I go to a doctor? It’s obviously a natural thing. It would be like telling the doctor, ‘I get turned on really easily. Can you stop that?’”
When's the last time you laughed so hard you couldn't catch your breath? What happened? Leave a comment telling us about it.