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Play For Your Health: Renewing the Joy of Service

By Melanie Smithson, MA, ADTR, LPC

The very word "caregiver" conjures up images of one who sacrifices him or herself for the good of others. The burnout rate for those working in the field is famously high. In our role as caregivers, we often ignore our own needs and forget to restore ourselves. We dismiss the pain in our back, the constant feeling of dread, or the lack of enthusiasm for life. The innate joy of service is often buried beneath the heaviness associated with obligation and responsibility. A playful spirit and lighthearted approach can ease our days and restore our sense of well-being.

I define play as an open and unattached way of interacting with self, others or objects; spontaneous being. But play is a personal experience; each person has their own interpretation and their own internal response when invited to play. We each have our preferred ways of playing and our favorite playmates (mine are my dogs). Our preferences and responses have been shaped by our play history and, unfortunately, is often plagued with messages that it is wrong to play (i.e. “there’s no time to play”, “when are you going to grow up?” etc.).

The benefits of play are numerous. D.W. Winnicott, a leading play therapist, says “it is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self”. Play fosters creativity and flexibility and brings us into relationship with others. Research has shown that play triggers the secretion of serotonin and endorphin (chemicals associated with pleasure, reward and stress reduction). Inviting play into our adult lives can momentarily and permanently change our perspective on life. By taking ourselves a little less seriously, we can loosen our grip and remember what it’s like to have fun.

Brian Sutton Smith, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania says, “ The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” When we don’t incorporate play into our lives, we lose the joy life has to offer. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual health are at risk for dis-ease.

How can we find time to play? First, we have to decide to make it a priority. Set aside 5 minutes each day (more as you can) to paint, or walk, or skip or dance. And then, look for opportunities in each moment; in the spaces in-between. Sing to yourself on your way to work; doodle on the note to the doctor; or make funny faces at yourself and others whenever possible.

And don’t let those old messages stop you. It’s hard not to dismiss play as ‘silliness’, but that silliness could save your life. Our vitality is our gift and needs to be cared for as much as those we care for.

Melanie Smithson, MA, DTR, is a somatic therapist currently working as an activities director and playing with the elderly. She lectures and co-leads playshops in the Denver/Boulder area. She can be reached at 303-271-7659, or by e-mail at melanie@smithsonclinic.com.

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