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Play—the Path to Healing

A playful outlook is a powerful way of creating a physiologic state of safety

Key points

  • Connecting with your sense of play is one of the most powerful ways of shifting your physiology from threat to safety.
  • Everyone has some level of play in their life.
  • When suffering from chronic anxiety and other symptoms, play circuits are used less and don’t evolve. 
  • Nurturing play and joy is a skill that requires thoughtful repetition. These aren't usually taught to us throughout our lifetime.

This is the real secret of life –

to be completely engaged with what you are doing

in the here and now.

And instead of calling it work,

realize it is play.

~Alan W. Watts

Play is not just a state of pleasure, it is a physiological state that reflects a sense of safety. You cannot play or feel playful if you are in a survival mode.

The essence of escaping from the grip of crippling anxiety is feeling safe. In this state your body is full of relaxing chemicals such as oxytocin (love/bonding), serotonin (antidepressant), GABA hormones (anti-anxiety), dopamine (reward), and small anti-inflammatory proteins called cytokines. Your metabolic rate (fuel consumption) also drops, which allows your energy reserves to be replenished. This scenario not only creates a deep sense of well-being but it is also healing.

The data documenting the devastating effects of chronic stress on your mental and physical health is extensive and deep. Prolonged exposure to the body’s neurochemical survival response predictably causes illness and disease and shortens life.1,2,3

Research also shows that cultivating optimism, having a sense of purpose, and feeling hopeful have the opposite effect. When people learn how to skillfully process their stress and nurture joy, they experience an improvement in anxiety and many other symptoms.4 In one study, participants visualized their best self for five minutes a day over a course of two weeks. They all noted significant improvements in anxiety.5


In three- or five-day workshops I conduct, participants typically discover that shared play is a powerful force and most of the participants have a significant improvement in their anxiety and pain. It happens after people began to relax, share, let go, and laugh together.

Initially it wasn't clear why people could shift so quickly after being miserable for years. It's now understood that anxiety reflects a sustained inflammatory state that also causes many other symptoms. Feeling connected to others in a relaxing environment stimulates the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is critical for social bonding and is also powerfully anti-inflammatory. The participants felt safe in this setting; several remarked that they felt like they were in an “adult summer camp.”

Of course, once returned home to their triggers, their anxiety and pain would reappear. But now they not only possessed new knowledge and tools, but they had reconnected to feeling playful, and relaxed. Many had not felt that way for years. Now they had a memory that they could return to. Years later, many have continued to thrive.

Source: chendongshan/AdobeStock

All mammals play as a part of their development. It is a multidimensional experience that processes many environmental cues and promotes reactions appropriate to the situation.

Play is a core step in how we developed language and consciousness. Even if they feel deeply buried or almost nonexistent, your play circuits are there, waiting to be accessed.6 Any skill that is not practiced will fade, but those neural circuits can be reawakened.

As you use the playful part of your brain more and spend less time feeling anxious, your brain’s structure and neurological activity physically change and grow. Conversely, when you experience chronic stress, your brain physically shrinks. Fortunately, as you heal and create more connections, it re-expands.7

I used to play trumpet in high school

Consider a skill you had in middle or high school. Without practice, it has faded, but the memory is still there. I played trumpet in high school and a little bit in college as well. I could play reasonably well through medical school, but it all was sacrificed to the rigors of residencies and fellowships. I recently picked the trumpet back up, and although I have no lip strength or dexterity, I still remember the basic techniques and hope to reconnect with them quickly. It is doable, whereas if I were to try to learn a completely new instrument, it would take much longer.

My wife started playing the guitar again after a 30-year hiatus, and within a few weeks, was able to finger-pick like the old days. One day, it just all came back to her, and she quickly progressed beyond where she left off.

The same is true for you: Your play circuits are still there, waiting to be re-vitalized.

A deliberate decision

Many years ago, pondering my own journey out of The Abyss, it hit me that the words “work” and “play” are somewhat arbitrary. I realized that my vacations were spent largely with trying to recover from the demands of work. I didn’t have the energy to fully engage in enjoying my time off.

Much of the problem had to do with how I viewed work and my strong reactions in dealing with the challenges of being a spine surgeon. I decided that I would work on removing those labels from my life.

If I loved my work, and spent most of my waking hours doing it, why call it work? I decided to just embrace the whole experience. My entire team relaxed, and I enjoyed my patients, fellows, and colleagues a lot more. We had fun to the point where sometimes we would have to work on toning it down while we were in clinic.

At the same time, one of my mentors told me, “Challenges are an opportunity to practice your stress-coping skills and are part of any endeavor.” I began to embrace challenges head on and my reactions to stress dropped dramatically. By seeing problems as opportunities, I was both more effective and engaged with the difficult aspects of my job. This simple paradigm shift created a world of difference.

Source: gustavofrazao/AdobeStock

Play is a mindset

A word of caution: I am not referring to play as a way to distract yourself from your suffering. You can’t outrun your mind. Rather, it is mindset of curiosity, deep gratitude, listening, anticipation, awareness, and improving your skills to calm your nervous system. Nothing initially has to change in your life. My work environment was unchanged. It was my attitude that changed. I chose different words every day to reflect a sense of play. The result was a sense of contentment and peace.

Remember, nurturing joy is a learned skill along with processing stress. You will eventually become an expert. At some tipping point, you’ll simply refuse to let people or situations ruin your day. You’ll also progress to being a source of peace and vitality. That is a long way from being trapped by anxiety and pain,

Recap: Moving forward

Play is one of the most effective ways to give your nervous system cues of safety. However, in the presence of relentless anxiety and pain, it probably seems impossible. You must simultaneously learn to de-energize anxiety and anger while nurturing safety.

Play to distract yourself from unpleasant feelings doesn’t work and is actually counterproductive. You cannot outrun your mind and your inflammatory markers go straight up. Conversely, living life with connection and purpose causes them to plummet.8

Choose play. Do it all day long every day and watch your life be transformed.


1. Tennant F. The physiologic effects of pain on the endocrine system. Pain Ther. 2013;2(2):75-86.

2. Torrance N, Elliott AM, Lee AJ, Smith BH. Severe chronic pain is associated with increased 10-year mortality: a cohort record linkage study. Eur J Pain. 2010;14(4):380-386.

3. Rahe R, et al. “Social stress and illness onset.” J Psychosomatic Research (1964); 8: 35.

4. Hausmann, LRM, et al. Reduction of bodily pain in response to an online positive activities intervention. Jrn of Pain (2014); 15: 560-567.

5. Meevissen,YMC, et al. Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two-week intervention. Jrn of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry (2011); 42: 371-378.

6. Brown, Stuart, and Christopher Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2009.

7. Seminowicz, David A., et al. “Effective Treatment of Chronic Low Back Pain in Humans Reverses Abnormal Brain Anatomy and Function.” The Journal of Neuroscience (2011); 31: 7540-7550.

8. Cole SW, et al. Social Regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology (200); 8:R189. doi: 10.1186/gb-2007-8-9-r189