- Getting outside
- Listening to music
All of these are great, and they are effective at lowering cortisol levels, oxygenating blood, and increasing feel-good neurochemicals. We should definitely keep doing them!
But there’s another equally-effective technique that most adults don’t go to when they’re going through difficult times.
If you were really struggling with something, would you consider grabbing a coloring book and a 64-pack of crayons? Or dressing up as a pirate and running around your backyard? Or making a fort in your living room out of couch cushions and blankets? Or blasting silly music and playing air guitar in your underpants?
When we leave childhood, many of us seem to forget an incredibly important tool in stress management: play.
For children, playing is a natural state and is primarily how they learn; they need it to function and grow properly. As Mr. Rogers once famously said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play isserious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
For adults, play creates a rich neurological environment that gives our brains a chance to learn how to calm down. It often involves both logic and creativity, which activate both of our cerebral hemispheres, and it lowers activity in the amygdala, the part of our brains involved in emotional reaction that is most intensely and rapidly affected by stress (Santos).
It is this ability to cool the firing of the amygdala — and consequently lower cortisol levels, take us off high alert, and allow us to get back to a place of clear thinking — that shows that play is also serious business for grown-ups. As Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, puts it: Play “provides a state of mind that, in adults as well as children, is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavors.”
So…it seems easy enough, right? Just keep a pack of crayons in your desk drawer and you’re golden, right?
Well, here’s the trick: your brain knows when you’re really playing and when you’re trying to manipulate the brain into thinking you’re playing. Play isn’t so much about a thing that you do as it is the way that you do it. You can’t pretend to play; you have to want to play. Your brain can tell when you’re faking it.
According to Dr. Gray, real play has a few main characteristics:
- Play is self-chosen and self-directed — it has to do with motivation and mental attitude, and the ability to stop at any time. Says Dr. Gray: “Play is, first and foremost, an expression of freedom.” (Doesn’t that sound like something you want to be a part of? What an amazing way to approach our lives!)
- Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends. Think how different this is from most of our adult lives!
- Play has mental “rules” which are not dictated by physical necessity but which spontaneously come from the minds of those playing — think of the rich imaginative “nonsense” worlds that kids create all the time.
- Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life.
- Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind — so two people can be doing the exact same activity (throwing a ball, for example), and one can be playing while the other one is not. It’s all about the state of mind.
For many of us, that prospect of really letting go, cutting ourselves loose from outcomes and jumping headlong into a universe of freedom and possibility — strangely, can all be both incredibly enticing and a little terrifying at the same time. We get used to taking ourselves so seriously, and being “grown-up” can be a protection of sorts from vulnerability.
Play means creating for its own sake, not for the “great job!” that comes with producing something. It means not worrying about whether or not we look ridiculous as we’re whooping about in a pirate costume in our yard. It means not doing everything through the filter of what others would think or if it’s “good enough” or not. Play requires a certain kind of courage for adults.
But there’s so much to enjoy about it, and so much benefit we can receive from that courage! In addition to stress relief, reintroducing yourself to the vital, magical world of play has been shown to:
- Help develop social skills
- Teach cooperation
- Heal emotional wounds
- Improve problem-solving skills
- Boost creativity
- Keep you feeling young and energetic
- And even resist illness (as less cortisol and more positive neurochemicals bolster immunity and help us stay well)
We have lots of useful tools at our disposal to help us soothe the stress response and keep our bodies, minds, and spirits as healthy as possible. Re-engaging with the marvelous world of play can be a fantastic way to connect with your kids — and re-connect with your own inner kid. Next time you have a get together with your grown-up friends, don’t forget to bring the crayons.
If you’re interested in taking a deeper look at long-term, sustainable stress relief, check out my Higher Brain Living® program! Clients of Higher Brain Living® consistently report a decrease in stress as the #1 benefit they receive from their sessions. Click here to find out more and for a limited time, try it for free!
P.S. Do you know anyone else who might like to have less stress in their life? Go ahead and forward this article to them – then schedule a play-date!
Gray, Peter, Ph.D. “The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights.” Psychology Today. November 2008.
Santos, Elena. “Coloring Isn’t Just For Kids. It Can Actually Help Adults Combat Stress.” Huffington Post, October 14, 2014.
Sood, Amit, M.D. The Mayo Clinic’s Guide to Stress-Free Living. Philadelphia: De Capo Press, 2013.
Wang, Sam, Ph.D. and Aamodt, Sandra, Ph.D. “Play, Stress, and the Learning Brain.” Cerebrum: the DANA Forum on Brain Science. September 2012.