The Power of Play to Reduce Stress

As we enter 2 months of stay at home orders, the sameness of each day can create a sense of fatigue that is hard to shake. In times like these, the uncertainty of what to expect from the future can add anxiety to a potentially stressful situation. Now more than ever it's important to find ways to relieve stress.

When I watch my three dogs get into their daily wrestling match, it reminds me of the value of play. Watching the pups cut loose makes me think about the idea of play from a holistic perspective. When you think about it, play is the perfect holistic activity. It connects every aspect of life; physical, mental, emotional, social, and it can even open us up spiritually.

When we engage in play we move into the present moment, acting in ways that are spontaneous and creative. Participation in playful activities lets us leave behind mental stresses and worries, while helping us become more present and embodied. Studies have shown that play can increase our health and longevity. What’s great about play is that you can do something good for mind body and spirit that is also enjoyable.

Playfulness has a positive impact on many aspects of life:

Physical:  Anything that gets us up and moving is a good thing, especially when you consider that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, along with a myriad of related health conditions. Some studies have shown a reduction in life expectancy by several years due to lack of exercise.  Physical play, whether you choose a dance class, softball league, or a spontaneous game of tag, releases endorphins; those feel-good neurotransmitters that reduce pain, increase immune function and give off an overall feeling of euphoria, aiding stress reduction and leaving us with a feeling of well-being.

Mental: Like physical activity, exercising your mind has potentially huge health payoffs. Researchers are discovering that partaking of mentally stimulating activities may cut the odds of suffering dementia and memory loss as we age.  Play also reduces mental stress, which is a trigger for release of potentially damaging stress hormones in the body.

Social/Community: Taking time to engage in fun activities with a group – even virtually in these times – can help build a sense of community and camaraderie. We gain a sense of belonging and shared experience. Social connection is a key factor in healthy outcomes and longevity. Individuals with strong social ties recover from illness faster and generally have a more positive outlook than those who lack connection to others. An added benefit of social connection is that it helps us improve in areas that are key for learning to set boundaries, as well as establishing effective communication and collaboration – skills that help us navigate the path of daily life at work and home.

Emotional: Engaging in play has a way of bringing us into the present moment. As we become engrossed in play activities, we stop worrying about the things that hold us back; the fear of what others think about us or whether we look silly. We stop thinking about the bills, work deadlines, family stresses – if only for a little while – our emotional experience is in the here and now. When we are having fun in the moment, we experience a positive emotional state. This state of positivity benefits body and mind in many ways.

Spiritual: Play helps us learn spontaneity and presence, allowing us to experience a sense of gratitude and appreciation for what is. Spiritual practices such as mindfulness and meditation that focus on presence can open us to greater spiritual experience. In Christianity, Jesus’ words, "So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself” (Matthew 6:34) alludes to the value of the present moment and gratitude for what is happening in the now. The Buddha sums up, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”.

So, there you have it. Taking time out to play is holistic and healthy. Can you think of any reason not to engage in play? Who can’t use a little more fun, a little less stress, and a healthier, happier life?


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