Live and work, but do not forget to play, to have fun in life and really enjoy it.
– Eileen Caddy, The Dawn of Change
To be willing to play in the midst of difficult times can be a great blessing. Even if you feel it necessary to keep a somber mood until it’s over, what next? How long is enough grieving? How much is enough sadness?
If you are struggling with grief, please understand that there is no right answer to “how much” to grieve. It will happen in its own time, and differently for each person. Don’t let others pressure you into shortening your process. If you grow concerned that grief may have become depression, consider whether you might benefit from professional help. It’s not disrespectful to eventually move on.
Sad times come. Stress happens. Life can be hard. When life is a struggle from one day to the next, it can be hard to remember to take a break and just play – without feeling guilty.
From Wound to Play
I spent some time at a retreat center that was also a rescue for abused and abandoned dogs and puppies. Many of the dogs came in timid, scared, and huddled in the back of their cages, afraid of any people or other dogs. The staff were gentle and respectful with them, treating their medical problems, keeping them fed and clean, and slowly socializing them by touch and by reading books to them so they could hear friendly speech.
Their wounds healed, and then… a fascinating thing happened. They got curious. They began chasing butterflies, sniffing around the edges of their pens, and trying to push through the gate. Sometimes they would nose around outside the pen, get spooked by a grasshopper, and race back inside where it was safe. Each pup had its own style, but the end result was similar – curiosity.
Play. Exploration. Hearing the call of life, the call of wild, to join in the natural world.
The opposite of anxiety is not bold action – it is curiosity. It is willingness to engage in a situation without holding a prediction of the outcome. “I wonder…”
Wonder, Awe, and Humor
Think of the three year old child who comes out on Christmas morning to a living room piled FULL of GIFTS!!! Sparkles! Ribbons and bows! Presents everywhere! The tree all lit up!! Candy and stockings too!! WOW!!!
Awe holds a very special place in helping us remember how to play. Play as an “adult” can be quieter, such as watching the sunrise paint colors on a mountain peak. Or it could mean taking a camera out around town for a sunset over the shopping mall, experimenting to see just what photo variations are possible. Play as an adult can also mean learning something new, trying out a new activity or improving skill in an existing talent – or reading or watching a really great story and losing yourself in the moment.
Awe and wonder take us out of ourselves. They help us forget, for a little bit, about the limitations and struggles in our lives. Often, they remind us of things much larger than our own lives – a view of the stars, the age of a mountain, the depth of the ocean, a sense of timelessness; an awareness that this moment is very small and soon won’t matter.
Curiosity plays with time from a different angle. Curiosity forgets about the past and the future, and gets totally involved in the present moment. In exploring something of interest outside, it helps with forgetting the self.
Humor reminds us that life can surprise us, that we don’t know everything, and thus that the things we worry about might not be totally predictable and controllable. Laughter relieves tension and helps us both with other people and feel supported.
When I am sad, frustrated, feeling powerless, I tend to mentally narrow my options. This won’t work, that won’t work, that’s useless, I can’t do that, I can’t be this or that. It’s an endless parade of can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, and don’t. Most of all, I forget that I can change. I feel stuck.
Humor and curiosity help remind me to flow, to let myself adapt and change. They remind me that whatever I’m currently dealing with, it isn’t my whole life and self. They remind me to breathe.
From there, wonder and curiosity lead me into exploring new possibilities, some of which may shift my perspective on things I thought were permanently stuck. They lead me out into the world, engaging with other people, engaging with new ideas, and realizing that I can be so much more than just my current circumstances.
Some of those new ideas might feel threatening, destabilizing, or just plain unfamiliar. That’s okay. I don’t have to adopt every new thing that comes my way, but I can stretch my comfort zone a little and try something that seems interesting, knowing I can simply stop if I don’t like it.
Play and the Stress Response
One of the valuable aspects of play comes in its effect on physical health.
When a person or animal gets stressed, it gets a fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, which comes from hormones in the body such as cortisol and adrenaline. The body systems controlling that are largely instinctive; they come from a part of the brain that isn’t so good with reason, logic, and analytical thought. The flip to that response is the relaxation response, which slows the release of adrenaline and cortisol, lets heart rate return to normal, and lets muscles relax and normal life resume.
Studies have been performed with farm animals, who feel stress when human caretakers show up to provide food and water and clean their stalls. Their hormonal responses can be measured through saliva, and improvements in their experiences of living conditions translate into longer life and better results for the animals and the people. So there has been significant motivation for meaningful research on stress responses.
One of the things they learned was that giving an audible cue for the beginning and end of the stressful period was very helpful. The animals quickly learned what sounds meant that a person is coming (perhaps buckets and gates clanging with a dinner delivery) and their stress levels rose in response. If there was no clear signal of completion, stress levels remained high, sometimes for hours.
When the farmers then added an “all clear” sound, such as a bell, immediately as they left the barn, the animals learned that they could relax again and their stress levels dropped. The bell became a trigger for a relaxation response. In this way, the animals spent a few minutes stressed and nervous, but knew clearly when it was over and they could let go.
I experimented with this approach myself. My house cats had health problems for a while that required daily administration of pills and syringe feeding. This was understandably very stressful and scary for them. For the first weeks we struggled and fought and scared each other, and I left the process exhausted and sad and stressed out myself.
Then I learned about those farm studies, and tried a very simple change to my routine: I said, “All done!” after I was finished administering treatments.
Within just a few days, my cats stopped sulking away and hiding under couches for hours, visibly relaxed to know that no more handling was coming any time soon. In a few weeks, their stress periods shrunk from 3 hours down to about 5 minutes, with far happier cats and humans quickly resulting. The cats became much easier to handle, began to train easily on the new routine, and everything got easier.
I noticed an interesting side effect: When I told the cats that they were done, I also relaxed!! It seemed my brain had also learned the cue and knew it was safe to stop worrying after that.
Humans do respond similarly to “stress is done now / you’re safe” cues.
We need safe zones. One of the reasons that children who suffered abuse at home have trouble managing stress is that they often had no safe zone. There was no location and no time of day when they could know for sure that they were safe and it was okay to drop their guard. They were trapped in unsafe circumstances, and so were never able to truly rest. As adults, they will have to make special arrangements to set up safe zones for themselves, where it becomes possible to learn to let go.
Like a bell marking the end of stress, play can also be a trigger for a relaxation response.
Getting curious or silly, or staring awestruck at a magnificent view of nature, are things that help us be less serious, less worried, and less tense. They invite us to consider a broader life beyond our momentary stresses. They invite us to let go.
We have to let go. It’s critical for health. Elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels over a long period of time shorten lives and increase chronic illness. It reduces creative thinking and problem solving, impairs reasoning, and causes depression and anxiety. It can steal away quality of sleep and create insomnia and nightmares.
Too much stress robs us of the health resources we need to have the energy to make changes in our circumstances.
Where stress destroys, play restores. Play encourages exercise, good blood and oxygen flow, and reduced tension. It encourages creativity and clear thinking.
Play isn’t a guilty pleasure to avoid during times of seriousness and stress. It’s a necessity to survival and thriving.
Remember those scared puppies, whose wounds healed and then they got curious and began exploring the world? Once their fear faded a bit, life began to smell very curious and interesting. The wild called them out, called them back to their true nature.
Will you let life call you out as well?