Research has shown that adults, too, have a lot to gain from the act of playing.
July 7, 2018, 9:25 AM CDT / Updated July 7, 2018, 9:25 AM CDT
By Tolu Ajiboye
When you think of playing, some memories from childhood most likely come to mind: digging for dinosaur bones in the sandbox, a game of tag at recess, spending hours with your toy of choice (whether it was a Barbie doll, a Hot Wheel’s car or a pile of Legos).
But can you remember the last time you played?
If you can’t, then you may be missing out on an important way to give your physical and mental health a boost.
There’s a reason why we associate playtime with young children: Free play is how kids discover the world and how it works. “Play is essential as they grow, as it helps them develop language, vocabulary, social-cognitive, collaboration and turn-taking skills along with their emotional intelligence,” Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, Professor of Developmental Psychology at New York University, tells NBC News BETTER. “Children that aren’t allowed to play experience a loss of self-motivation and they run the risk of burn-out.”
Tamis-LeMonda explains that play is also a great learning tool for children. “There have been experiments measuring the success of teaching children with play as a tool versus teaching them in ways devoid of play," she says. "They all found that children learn more and retain information better when there’s play involved.”
We’ve come to accept that play as an important part of a healthy child’s development, but who says they have a lien on play’s advantages? Definitely not science. Studies and research show that adults, too, have a lot to gain from the act of playing.
The most obvious benefit comes from play that involves physical activity. When done frequently, it strengthens your heart, boosts your lung function and lowers your risk of developing coronary heart disease. Not only that, physical play like sports and exercise, also reduce your stress hormones (e.g cortisol and adrenaline) and trigger the release of endorphins — your feel-good hormones — which elevates your mood and helps you relax after a stressful day.
Physical play like sports and exercise reduces stress hormones and triggers the release of endorphins.
Laughter, which is present in many kinds of playful activities, releases those same feel-good hormones. The act of simply laughing with others will also foster a sense of camaraderie and strengthen your relationships, too.
At work, play increases your productivity levels and makes you more creative. In fact, in their book "Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College," Dr. Sam Wang and Dr. Sandra Aamodt discuss how play contributes to successful problem solving, not just at work, but in your personal life, too. "Work in adult life is often most effective when it resembles play. Indeed, total immersion in an activity often indicates that the activity is intensely enjoyable; this is the concept of flow, or what athletes call being in the zone," they wrote. "Flow occurs during active experiences that require concentration but are also highly practiced, where the goals and boundaries are clear but leave room for creativity. This describes many adult hobbies, from skiing to music, as well as careers like surgery and computer programming."
Finally, as you age, play (especially the social and group kinds) facilitates happiness, wards off depression, improves cognitive health and lowers your risk of developing age-related diseases like dementia.
So you’re convinced that you could benefit from adding play back into your weekly routine. But what exactly does play look like for adults?
Think of play as more of a mental approach to activities, not necessarily the particular activities themselves. In fact, you don’t really need to worry about if an activity constitutes as play or not, as long as you adopt a playful mindset and of course, have fun, while you’re partaking. It could be taking part in your favorite sport, playing a board game with your family, solving sudoku puzzles on the commute to work, swimming with friends, taking an exercise class or cooking a new recipe.
Being happy, relaxed, free, feeling like time is flowing, not constantly checking your watch — those things signify that you are in play mode.
What feels like play to you may not to the next person, and that’s okay. (A friend may love playing volleyball at the beach, while you, on the other hand, see it as self-inflicted torture.) “The definition of play connotes voluntariness and vulnerability. It’s anything you feel like doing without being made or forced to,” explains play expert, creative strategist and toy designer Yesim Kunter. Kunter develops play experiences and applies play philosophy to spaces, environments and communities, She also trains organizations to leverage creativity and innovation through play workshops. “Being happy, relaxed, free, feeling like time is flowing, not constantly checking your watch — those things signify that you are in play mode.”
Clinical psychologist and chief of the Division of Psychology at Ellis Hospital, Dr. Rudy Nydegger, says there are two basic tenets of play. “First, it is something that we do for recreation that is purely for enjoyment and/or entertainment — it is something we do just for fun," he says. "Second, it is something that is intrinsically motivating. In other words it is something that we want to do and is not something we need to be coerced or 'bribed' into doing. It is voluntary; we do it just because we want to.”
You can either carve out a special time for play, such as planning a weekend activity with friends, finishing a crossword puzzle every night before bed or heading out for daily morning runs. Or you can also decide to incorporate play into regular tasks that are already on your to-do list: like doodling while you’re on a conference call at work or singing and dancing in the shower or while you clean.
Because most adults spend the bulk of their waking hours at the office, making sure you experience some type of play there is crucial. “A lot of offices are sterile and ‘unplayful,’ so it could be simple and subtle playful things like using colorful pens on your tables or having posters with nice inspirational quotes on your desk wall,” Kunter explains. “And if your office allows it, playing a board game for just 15 minutes with your colleagues is a great way to play and refresh yourself during office hours.”
Here are five ways Kunter says you can easily incorporate play into your office space:
Tamis-LeMonda advises us to take a page out of a children’s book. “That’s what’s really cool about children, they don’t worry about the future, they don’t check things off their to-do lists,” she explains. “They live in the moment. There doesn’t have to be a final goal and they play for the sake of play. The truth is, play is being joyfully immersed in the moment, and as adults, we rarely do that.”
In a way, it is an active form of mindfulness, which is widely recommended and advocates being present and in the moment. Mindfulness has been proven to alleviate anxiety and depression. Studies also suggest that it can help you manage stress better and maintain a healthy weight.
So how often should we play? The short answer is every day. “It differs from person to person,” Kunter says. “Having a playful mind is the most important thing, but implementing ‘play-time’ into your daily routine will strengthen your ability to cope with stress and bring joy into your life.”
“Your brain can get injured just like any other body part, and it can heal just like any other body part.”
Olympic Runner Alexi Pappas had no choice but to be surrounded by mental health growing up. Her mother, who had bipolar disorder, died by suicide when Alexi was only four years old. That did not mean, however, that she really understood mental health or had the vocabulary to describe it. It was both a taboo subject in the 1990s and in her household. Nobody around her talked about it in a way that helped her to know that mental illness was treatable and her mother’s death in any way preventable.
Alexi explains she thought that her mother, “Was so sick and unhelpable that she had to go. Therefore, I wanted to never be in that situation where I reminded myself of her, because I thought in that case I might be unhelpable, too, and I might have to go.” So, Alexi tried to do everything she could to be different from her mother. To her, that meant becoming someone great, someone happy, and ultimately an Olympian. She did what she describes as, trying to solve an internal problem with an external solution.
But, that that didn’t stop her from becoming depressed. It did, however, make her unprepared for it.
After the Olympics she experienced a post-Olympic low, as many athletes do. She describes herself as being nearly at crisis level. She says, “I was in the middle of Mammoth Lakes, California with no vocabulary or understanding [about mental health] and just a complete denial that I was experiencing certain feelings, because I thought if I admitted it...if I wasn't okay, then I really might not be okay. And that just, of course, makes things worse.”
She didn’t even notice how bad she was herself. It was actually her dad who made her get help. Even still, getting to help was much harder than she could have ever imagined. She did not know how to find a provider and describes the process as humiliating, feeling she needed to ask for favors to find doctors and get in quickly given her urgency. This humbling experience inspired how she thinks about the challenges in the mental health system. It is one of the reasons she has since teamed up with Monarch, the largest therapist directory in the United States that allows people to both find a therapist and to request an appointment directly, as she believes that if it had existed when she tried to get help, a lot of her story would not have happened the way that it did.
Her treatment also profoundly changed the way she viewed mental health by her doctor simply reframing it for her. All it took was the right words that she was missing all along.
Her doctor explained, “Your brain can get injured just like any other body part, and it can heal just like any other body part.” By equating physical injury to mental injury, Alexi felt she could commit to healing her brain, just like an athlete commits to recovering from a physical injury. Healing, she says, then became a process she could understand just like an Olympic goal. When she explained the same concept to soldiers about PTSD in a talk she gave with the Pentagon’s US Army Resilience Directorate, they also resonated with it.
For Alexi, this messaging has been the number one thing that changed the course of her healing from mental illness. Understanding depression as a broken bone, allowed her to give herself grace for how long it could take to heal. Broken bones, she says, take time, and that is OK. Just like there are not many things that could prevent someone from breaking a bone in the first place, the same is true of an episode of depression or a mental health crisis. Within that frame, it became easier for her to have self-compassion and focus only on healing. Struggling with your mental health is not your fault, let alone the timing of those struggles.
There is perhaps no better example for this than Simone Biles withdrawing from her Olympic events, as one can only imagine that given the option no one would want to have to stop competing mid-competition at the Olympics.
Yet, if a person feels they can’t compete, physically or mentally, it should their decision to make. Alexi explains that if an athlete said they thought they would risk a leg injury by playing a match or doing an event, people would embrace the decision, and understand that they don’t want her to hurt her leg. Mental health is no different.
Alexi emphasizes, “[It] is a legitimate bodily need. I think the answer is so simple. It's like, what do you need in order to compete? And if you're unable to compete, because you're risking your body then don't compete.” By understanding that the brain, too, can get injured, Simone’s decision, and Naomi Osaka’s, make so much sense. But, given some of the backlash, perhaps more people could use to understand the vocabulary.
Mental health, like physical health, is also not only for the people who are extremely ill, or as Alexi describes, so self aware that they know what to look for. It is for everyone along the healing spectrum, and includes, where Alexi is now, maintenance. Her goal today, by going to psychiatry and therapy appointments, is to continue her health after her injury, or prevent another injury from occurring in the first place, with what she calls “prehab.”
In her newfound conceptualization of mental health, Alexi has also changed how she views sports and how we can actually be mentally prepared to survive and thrive within them. She says, “I think the big misconception is that the problem is chasing the dream. I think we could be much more prepared to handle that dream and to handle the moment after as like a legitimate chapter in the process.”
In other words, the problem is not wanting to be the best, or striving to be an Olympian, or even becoming one, but not including mental health in every conversation. Pappas, who is also the author of Bravey, adds, “I think it's just being able to come into it as prepared mentally as your body is prepared...We might be physically peaked, but mentally, we’re still human beings”
Even the GOAT Simone Biles is slowly realizing that herself.
by: Jessica Gold, July 29, 2020
by Elizabeth Millard, Oct. 13, 2020
Oxytocin, a hormone related to feelings of love and bonding, may play a major role in regulating gastrointestinal functions, especially as it pertains to stress, according to the preview of a new study to be published in The Journal of Physiology.
Looking at rats in a controlled laboratory setting, researchers introduced stress through several scenarios, such as by restraining them or forcing them to swim in a container where they couldn't touch the bottom. They then tested the rats' gastric emptying rate—how quickly food leaves the stomach—of a solid meal, along with assessing their hormone levels.
Thirty minutes before the stress tests, researchers injected the rats with a saline solution (control) or a drug designed to trigger the release of oxytocin. They found that oxytocin had a significant effect on gastric emptying. The rats that had been under the most stress had the slowest emptying rate, but when oxytocin was triggered, it increased muscle contractions in the stomach and shortened the delay.
While the results of the study only provide preliminary evidence, they do hold promise for further investigation. The information could lead to new targets for digestive drug development in the future, especially since oxytocin hasn't been investigated as a stress-response hormone in the past.
Reevaluating the Role of Oxytocin
In terms of stress response and gut health, oxytocin has not been thought to be a major player compared to other hormones like cortisol, dopamine, and serotonin.
Serotonin in particular has garnered the most attention. Since it's so strongly connected to mental health, it's often a target in antidepressant medications. About 90% of serotonin is produced in the digestive tract, which then sends signals up to the brain, according to Elaine Hsiao, PhD, research assistant professor of biology and biological engineering at Caltech.
Oxytocin, sometimes called the "love hormone" or the "cuddle hormone" because it's released when people bond socially or physically touch each other, is often highlighted not for its potential role in gut health, but for the birth process. The hormone causes uterine contractions, helps shrink the uterus after delivery, aids in breastfeeding, and promotes mother-child bonding.
A 2007 study in Psychological Science concluded that the higher a woman's oxytocin levels in the first trimester of pregnancy, the more likely she would be to initiate bonding behaviors with a baby, such as singing to the infant.
What This Means for You
You’ve likely experienced the negative effects of stress on your digestion—it can cause all kinds of symptoms like stomach aches, bloating, and nausea.4 Understanding the role of oxytocin on stress and digestion should encourage you to seek out activities that promote the production of this hormone, like working out or spending time with people you love, which in turn could help alleviate the associated gastrointestinal symptoms.
Gut and Brain Health
Highlighting oxytocin's potential role in digestive health adds to evidence about the importance of the gut-brain axis, says Lisa Mosconi, PhD, author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.
"The value of maintaining good gut health for better emotional regulation can't be overstated, because they're so connected," she says, adding that if one is thrown off, the other can be affected, sometimes dramatically. "It's a delicate balance because they're sending messages to each other all the time. But that's also the good news because if you work to improve one, you'll likely see benefits for the other."
The value of maintaining good gut health for better emotional regulation can't be overstated, because they're so connected.
— LISA MOSCONI, PHD
That means taking steps for better brain health—like eating healthy foods and pursuing de-stress strategies—can also be beneficial for your digestion.
Focusing on foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can be useful for better hormone regulation, but another solid strategy is simply to move more. Potentially a lot more.
“Your brain is wired to respond positively to exercise,” says Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of Habits of a Happy Brain. “When you exercise consistently, your brain gets even more efficient at making and releasing the natural chemicals that keep you upbeat, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.”
Although the recent study focused on oxytocin specifically, hormones like these don't work independently, says Breuning. Rather, they are released in combinations that are thought to improve functioning—creating streamlined processes related to everything from blood sugar control to stress relief to digestion.
When you exercise consistently, your brain gets even more efficient at making and releasing the natural chemicals that keep you upbeat, like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
— LORETTA GRAZIANO, PHD
Exercise can provide a major boost. Other strategies that could help with oxytocin include:
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March 31, 2021
A new study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences has found that the presence of a stress hormone may aggravate nasal allergies.2 The findings may eventually open the door to new treatments for seasonal allergies in the future.
Here’s what to know about the latest research on the relationship between stress and allergies.
In a study published earlier this month, a team of researchers led by scientists in Osaka, Japan, ran a series of experiments to explore the link between increased allergic reactions and the corticotropin-releasing stress hormone (CRH). Stress causes the body to release CRH, which then helps release cortisol, the primary stress hormone that puts the body in fight-or-flight mode. When people are stressed out, it worsens all allergic conditions. Sinus allergies get worse, and if a person is prone to hives or rashes, that gets worse, too.
— PURVI PARIKH, MD
When the researchers added CRH to a nasal polyp organ culture, they noticed that the number of mast cells, which drive allergic reactions, increased substantially in human nasal mucosa (the lining of the nasal cavity). The reaction also stimulated activity in mast cells, which leads to the release of chemicals that trigger allergic reactions.
“Mast cells have receptors where allergens and antibodies can interact. When the allergen and antibodies get connected to the mast cell, the mast cell extrudes chemicals responsible for itchiness, mucus production, or coughing that can go along with allergy symptoms,” explains Dr. Tiffany Owens, an allergist and immunologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Everyone has mast cells, but not everyone’s mast cells interact with antibodies because the allergy antibodies are made by the individual person.”
The researchers also explored the potential of antalarmin, an experimental drug that blocks CRH receptors, as a treatment for allergies. They found that antalarmin helped prevent stress hormones from increasing the number of mast cells and their activity in the nasal mucosa of mice. Still, more research is needed to determine the effect of the drug on humans.
“We don’t have antalarmin as a treatment we use now, but if it helps prevent stress-related inflammation, it could be a potential treatment option far down the road in the future,” says Dr. Owens.
The findings offer confirmation of what some allergists like Dr. Purvi Parikh, spokesperson for the Allergy & Asthma Network, have seen when treating patients with allergies and high levels of stress.
“When people are stressed out, it worsens all allergic conditions. Sinus allergies get worse, and if a person is prone to hives or rashes, that gets worse, too,” she says. “We also notice that people have anaphylactic reactions even more so when they are under stress, either physical or mental.”
Earlier Research on Stress and Allergies
This new research builds upon earlier studies on the relationship between stress and allergies.
A 2013 study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that people who had persistent emotional stress tended to have a higher frequency of allergy flares. However, it did not find that cortisol was associated with allergy symptoms.
It’s hopeful that’s this is not just a pharmaceutical study focused on what drug we can sell you to make this better.
— TIFFANY OWENS, MD
And a randomized controlled trial from 2009 showed that stress and anxiety could worsen and prolong symptoms of allergic rhinitis, a group of nasal symptoms (like sneezing and itchy, watery eyes) that occur when you inhale something you’re allergic to. The latest study helps advance scientific understanding of how a particular stress hormone can lead to an allergic reaction.
“This continues to intrigue us as physicians and as patients, to think about our bodies as this complex machinery interacting with our internal and external environments, and there are many factors involved,” says Dr. Owens. “It’s hopeful that’s this is not just a pharmaceutical study focused on what drug we can sell you to make this better.”
Coping With Allergies
If allergies make you miserable in the spring (or any time of year), consider working with an allergist to control your symptoms. They may recommend medications to ease your symptoms and/or allergy shots (immunotherapy) to build your tolerance to certain allergens, such as pollen. While the research on stress and allergies is promising, experts say that reducing stress probably isn’t enough to provide relief from allergy symptoms.
“I want to stress that this is not a replacement for traditional therapies,” says Dr. Parikh. “Managing stress should be done together with other treatments. Sometimes people think, ‘I’ll do yoga and not take my medications,’ but you should do both if you need them.“
I want to stress that this is not a replacement for traditional therapies. Managing stress should be done together with other treatments.
— PURVI PARIKH, MD
The findings on the latest study are just further evidence that stress reduction should be incorporated into a broader healthy lifestyle routine — not only for people with allergies, but for everyone, says Dr. Owens.
“I do recommend stress reduction, not so much if someone came in and said they have itchy eyes and a runny nose, but more in terms of general health and wellness,” she says. “This is just another encouragement to take care of ourselves, pay attention to what our bodies are telling us, and do the least amount of detriment. We can do some really good things for ourselves by taking time to rest and pay attention to healthy habits.”
What This Means For You
High stress levels can damage your physical and mental health. Now, new research shows that it may also aggravate symptoms of seasonal allergies, which affect up to 60 million people in the U.S. each year.
While experts say that stress reduction is not a substitute for traditional allergy treatment, it can be beneficial to incorporate it into an overall healthy lifestyle routine that may, in turn, improve your symptoms. If your allergies are acting up, get in touch with an allergist to see if medications or immunotherapy can help.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a favorite mindfulness technique to improve body awareness and help tackle feelings of anxiety and depression. Use this guide to try it out!
If you’re stressed out, anxious or feeling lonely, you are not alone.
From: Katie Anderson
By Alex Smith, KCUR JUNE 24, 2020
The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health paints a stark picture of pervasive mental distress among America’s queer youth.
July 15, 2020, 11:44 AM CDT
By Tim Fitzsimons
Two in 5 LGBTQ youth in the United States have "seriously considered" suicide in the past year, a sobering survey released Wednesday said, showing what one expert called the "devastating mental health consequences" of society's failure to create a safer and more affirming environment for America's queer youth.
The 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health by The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization, paints a stark picture of pervasive mental distress among America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth, with a majority reporting symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.
The survey, the largest of its kind, polled 40,000 LGBTQ people between ages 13 and 24 and found that 68 percent of the respondents reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, 55 percent reported symptoms of major depressive disorder and 48 percent reported engaging in self-harm. In addition, 40 percent say they have “seriously considered” attempting suicide in the past year.
In a clinical mental health setting, survey responses like these would lead to follow-up screenings, according to Amy Green, the study lead and director of research at The Trevor Project.
“Our physicians, pediatricians and mental health providers need to be screening youth,” she said, urging professionals to take a closer look at sexuality and gender issues in youth mental health settings.
Dr. Jack Turban, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he researches the mental health of transgender youth, said the findings "highlight that our society has a long way to go to create a safer and more affirming environment for LGBTQ youth.”
“We once again see the devastating mental health consequences of our failures," he said in an email.
As the survey’s own data show, many LGBTQ youth are not getting screened for the mental health issues they report. About half of the respondents say they want but could not get mental health care in the past year, with affordability the “strongest barrier to receiving mental health care."
The risks associated with unmet mental health care needs are stark. Overall, suicide is the second leading cause of death for American adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk of suicide than straight and cisgender youth. Fifteen percent of the respondents attempted suicide in the past year, the survey found.
“If we take a step back and look at minority stress model, that says that experiences of rejection, discrimination and victimization are the primary causal mechanisms that cause that ideation,” Green said, adding that it’s not who they are, “but how they are treated.”
In the survey, LGBTQ youth who reported facing greater rejection, violence and discrimination also reported higher rates of suicide attempts.
For transgender and nonbinary youth, having their identity and pronouns respected by “all or most” people was associated with a greatly reduced risk of a suicide attempt.
Even so, respect is still rare: Just 20 percent of trans and nonbinary youth said their gender identity is respected by “all or most” people in their lives.
LGBTQ youth in the survey identified with more than 100 different combinations of terms to describe their gender identity.
Turban said rejection “takes an insidious toll and plants the seed for mental health problems.”
“We can’t underestimate the broad adverse health effects caused by societal discrimination against LGBTQ people, and youth in particular,” he said. “Things like rejection from family and conversion therapy lead to a range of adverse mental health problems by telling these young people that something they can’t change about themselves makes them ‘bad’ or ‘wrong.’”
Green said understanding that rejection can lead to worse mental health outcomes can also illuminate a path forward.
While many LGBTQ youth face discrimination, the vast majority (86 percent) reported having a rock — at least one person who strongly supports them as an LGBTQ person — and those who have a rock also report lower rates of suicide attempts overall.
“The simple act of acceptance and letting kids express their identity can be incredibly powerful,” Green said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
If you are an LGBTQ young person in crisis, feeling suicidal or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the Trevor Lifeline now at 1-866-488-7386.
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