If you search “how to calm your nervous system” in Google, you’ll find hundreds of options—and I’m very intentional about how I do this too. It’s something we talk about all the time at Lindywell.
A favorite of mine, though, is play. It’s one of the most overlooked ways to stay well. It’s easy to play as a child, but as adults, it often becomes a lot more challenging and many of us don’t know how to play anymore.
What’s more, we don’t make the time for it. This is why I devoted an entire chapter in my book, Well to the Core, to play. What most of us need to do to actually make time for play. In our hyper-productive culture, the simple act of having fun usually takes a backseat to other more pragmatic commitments on the schedule.
This is probably one of the many reasons why our mental and emotional burnout continues to rise. In today’s culture, our nervous systems are totally out of balance, which means we’re anything but happy and calm.
Being in this state of burnout consistently can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also manifest physically in digestive issues, trouble with sleep, heart conditions and so much more.
This is why we need to play now, more than ever before. Play can help to:
- Calm the nervous system
- Relieve the impacts of stress
- Restore a feeling of balance
- Lift your overall mood.
Plus, it might even encourage you to spend more time doing other things that make you happy!
Let’s explore the science behind the health benefits of play, and then talk about how to have more fun as an adult.
The Many Health Benefits of Play
Knowing how to calm your nervous system will impact every area of your life: mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. That’s why play is such an important tool; it helps you create joy, calm, and balance in all of these areas.
Playfulness is associated with being in a flow state, which is when your brain is fully immersed in a certain activity. I feel this when I’m doing Pilates or doing Pilates or playing a game that requires all of my attention, like pickle ball or tennis—I’m completely immersed in that moment.
Being in this flow state can release dopamine, the happy hormone that activates pleasure and stimulates a feeling of reward. As the brain enters what is referred to as a “dopaminergic flow state,” your nervous system begins to calm down, reducing stress levels, increasing a sense of calm, and likely, making you feel happier and more balanced.
Here are a few ways that play can impact specific areas of your health.
Mental and Physical Health
Researchers have found that leisure (which refers to voluntary, enjoyable non-work activities, such as hobbies, arts, volunteering, community group membership, sports, and socializing) impacts almost every area of our mental and physical health. It can:
- Support emotional regulation and mood changes.
- Improve management of challenging emotions like grief.
- Support overall brain functioning.
- Increase resilience, self-confidence, and self-talk.
- Boosts optimism, personal growth, and overall life satisfaction.
- Improves function and levels of most hormones in the body.
- Reduced heart rate, hypertension and glucose levels.
- Improves balance, posture and bone health.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, playfulness actually became a vital coping mechanism for many people to increase resilience, seek pleasure, and soothe mental and emotional distress. Since it’s both adaptable and flexible, sharing playful moments on social media networks also helped form cross-cultural and -generational connections.
Play can boost morale, creativity, motivation, and self-efficacy even in the most stressful times.
A study on adults with Type-1 Diabetes found that play made it easier for them to cope with the effects of their chronic illness. Participants also reported healthier emotional regulation and positive mood states. Psychiatrists reported similar results from play. Even with their high-pressure jobs, clinicians who prioritized fun had less perceived stress and more life satisfaction in general.
How to Make Time for Fun
You might think this sounds amazing, but I don’t have time to play. I get it, I’m not immune to that feeling either! One thing I’ve learned, however, is that we can make time for play by broadening our lens of what it actually means.
As kids, play meant running around with friends or pulling out a board game. As adults, these can be fun things to do as well—but we can create that sense of play in activities that give us all those amazing benefits but also fit our adult lifestyle.
The good news is, you may find you are already playing and can shift your perception around what you’re doing or the intentionality behind it. For example, a workout can be just a workout, or it can be a chance to feel great in your body, have fun, and tap into that sense of child-like joy.
Movement as Play
As adults, we often associate movement with boring or repetitive exercise, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, we have many workouts, like Joyful Movement, specifically designed to make your time on the mat even more fun and playful.
Whether you do that workout or another one of our 300+ available, Pilates is a great way to calm your nervous system, enjoy fitness, and build strength all at the same time! If you’re not a Lindywell member yet, sign up for a 14-day free trial and see how playful and fun it can be.
Other forms of movement can be just as playful too, from hiking to riding a bike. You get to make it fun by laughing along the way with a friend or checking out a new trail.
Creativity as Play
You don’t have to be a prolific artist to have fun unleashing your creativity. It can be fun to paint, draw, take photos, create a collage or make something with your hands—even if the final product isn’t “perfect.” What’s more, this creative time can also:
- Reinforce positive emotions
- Increase a sense of well-being
- Reduce perceived stress.
Remember, there are so many artistic or creative outlets to choose from. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ll be hosting a LIVE Sunday Setup workshop where play expert Kara Latta will be leading us through a live, interactive experience to help us all recover our playful, creative selves.
Games as Play
Of course, we know games are fun—but do you make time for them as an adult? Make games more fun for this stage of life by hosting a game night for your friend group. You can also take some time to enjoy a puzzle or board game with your partner or relish some alone time with a few rounds of Solitaire.
Whichever option sounds fun to you, all games lend themselves to play. It’s hard not to smile (and slip into that flow state) when you’re immersed in lively competition, with yourself or others.
Even better, games promote healthy brain function and stress management, while also reducing levels of anxiety or depression. So swap out your favorite Netflix show for Scrabble or Uno a few times a month.
How to Calm Your Nervous System? Play!
In a hectic world where stress lurks around every corner, the intentional act of reclaiming play is restorative in every way. It not only calms your nervous system, but you’ll also notice improvements in your mental, emotional, physical, and social well-being. My guess is you’ll feel lighter from the inside out as you play that stress away, and that’s exactly what we want!
To learn more about how play can positively impact your health and to discover a sustainable and enjoyable roadmap to better mental and physical health, be sure to pre-order my new book Well to the Core.