Summer used to be such fun: swimming, building sandcastles, romping in the park. And while today’s go-go-go schedules can make it seem impossible to frolic like we once did, a slew of research finds that being playful has a powerful ability to conquer stress.
In German studies, people who exhibit high levels of playfulness are happier, more resilient and less vulnerable to burnout than their serious-minded counterparts. “When we switch our brain to a playful attitude, we release happiness hormones that combat stress,” explains psychologist Zelana Montminy, author of 21 Days to Resilience ($17.49, Amazon). And it’s easy to do. Read on for the whimsical ways stress experts tame tension. They’ll work for you, too!
Feeling Down? Shake It Off
To deal with difficulties that threaten to put a damper on her spirits, Montminy channels one of her kids’ favorite songs called “Shake Your Sillies Out.” “I’ll get up, jump up and down and wiggle my arms and legs if I’ve gotten a call from a colleague who’s upset me or my boss gives me negative feedback — though I have an office, so others may want to sneak off to the stairwell to try it,” she laughs. The physicality involved in such antics and the laughter that invariably ensues have a study-backed ability to improve mood in minutes. “Plus, it helps you step out of whatever emotional intensity you’re experiencing and gain a more positive perspective.”
Frustrated? Spin a Story
When faced with aggravating delays, playfulness expert Lynn Barnett-Morris, Ph.D., an associate professor of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, uses her imagination to fend off stress. “If the woman ahead of me in line is going nuts because her card was declined, I’ll imagine, Boy, she must be a spy from another country, then make up details about her job.” Why such ‘make believe’ keeps you mellow, she says: It takes you to a lighthearted place that turns an irritating situation into an entertaining interlude.
Overwhelmed? Break Out Some Toys
In her work as chief of the division of mind-body medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Katherine Puckett, PhD, deals with life and death daily. And to keep her spirits lifted when she’s feeling strained, she relies on a stick horse she named Chuckles.
“I got him 13 years ago after having a blast riding one at a staff carnival. He has helped me become more open to responding to stress in a playful way.” Another toy she uses to maintain a joyful mindset: a rubber penguin she and her spouse take turns hiding at home. “Just knowing my husband’s going to find it makes me feel more lighthearted.”
Worried? Blow Bubbles
“Worry can intrude on even my happiest days, so I keep a bottle of bubbles in my purse,” says happiness expert Lisa Cypers Kamen, author of Are We Happy Yet? ($15.95, Amazon). “I’ll use it as a simple mindfulness exercise.”
Kamen advises releasing your worries with each bubble you make, watching it float away. The inhaling and exhaling we do when blowing bubbles mimics the deep breathing that’s been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol by 50 percent. “Plus, bubbles themselves remind us of the carefree child that lives inside of us and can boost our joy if we allow it to come out and play.”
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.