QueeringPsychology: The Psychotherapy Resource


Somatic Series: Play and Why It’s Important
Queeringpsychology: The Psychotherapy Resource

Queeringpsychology: The Psychotherapy Resource

I am a Black queer man who is also a licensed psychotherapist (LMHC/LPC). I created this website to serve as a reference page where I can post information for people who cannot afford or find a therapist. Information is power and I believe that sharing information equally can assist us in obtaining our freedom. I hope this site is useful for those who need it.

Welcome back to my blog and video series where I’m helping people connect with their intuition, map their nervous systems, develop a solid, healthy relationship with their bodies, and build stronger community using somatic psych theory.

Video version of this post here.

Here are the basics of the autonomic nervous system – the starting point to having a better understanding of the connection between your mind and body and how to figure out your emotions.

Here is a video (plus transcription) using a visual (Daniel Siegal’s Hand Model) to explain the basics for the visual learners out there.

Here is a post where I go deeper explaining our sympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight response.

And here is where I get into the youngest part of our parasympathetic nervous system, our ventral vagus, and the ways it helps us connect with ourselves and build community with others.

As we know by now, our emotions and thoughts are deeply connected to which part(s) of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) are active at that time. Our 3-part ANS is constantly checking the environment for signs of safety and danger, even without us being consciously aware of it. And our ANS responds in different ways in seconds depending on the information our nervous systems and bodies receive from the environment. We don’t really notice anything until we start feeling our bodies respond physically to the decisions our ANS already made to protect and/or support us. And then our conscious brain interprets these physical sensations (“Oh I’m feeling xyz, I must be abc”) and these interpretations are/become our thoughts and emotions. So like I’ve said before, learning your ANS is a major key into understanding your thoughts and emotions.

Simple right?

Ok, so what if I told you that there were times in which 2 parts of your ANS could work together? Many emotions and responses are usually connected to 1 part of your ANS being active at a specific time. But there are some situations that are pretty complicated and require some quick collaboration to make sure you are safe and/or can fully enjoy the moment.

And again, I’m taking this time to explain these nervous system basics because it’s actually a key part of the healing process. If you understand which parts of your nervous system are activated at any given point, then you have a head start in how to support yourself and/or how to be supported by others.

So today we are going to talk about playing: What play is, what makes it so important, how our experiences with trauma affect play, and how to incorporate playing into your healing process.


The Neurobiology of Play

Because of the way many of us are socialized (Check out my socialization post if you’re not sure what I mean by that) in Western society, play is seen just something children do and something only for adults if you can make money off of it. And even children are encouraged to play less and less these days and pressed to spend more and more time sitting still in classrooms and, even worse, pushed out of public life as safe, free 3rd spaces are removed from our neighborhoods. We are all encouraged to spend so much time working, it’s easy to see play is unimportant, childish, or a luxury.

From a neurobiological perspective, play is actually way more complicated than you may think, and it plays a very important role in our health, our brain development, our relationships with others, and our relationship with ourselves. Both your energetic, mobilizing sympathetic nervous system and your social, present ventral vagus work together to make sure you have everything you need to make the most out of the play experience. Play engages the ventral vagus’s social engagement center to send and receive signs of safety to keep the play going and the good times rolling.

Remember the vagal brake from the last post on the ventral vagus? Playing actually exercises and strengthens your vagal brake. When we play, our vagal brake relaxes just enough, so we receive the energy we need in the moment while also engaging, so we can also tap into feelings of calmness and social connection as needed. The vagal brake’s ability to be flexible, relaxing and engaging when we need it to is so important here.

Play involves some complicated balancing work when you think about it. It involves getting hype while staying in the moment and being active while connecting with others. We need the energy of the sympathetic nervous system to get it shaking, while we also need the vagal brake to limit how much sympathetic energy gets released, so we don’t slip out of connection with the people we are playing with and get into fight/flight or get so overwhelmed that we shut down.


Play as a Human Need

Play isn’t a luxury. It’s a human need. Both for children AND adults. We, as humans, never grow out of our neurobiological (and cultural/social) need to play, with others and even alone. Again, play is essential in order to strengthen and maintain your body’s ability to regulate your nervous system and your emotions.

Children need regular play as a major part of their brain and body development. Play is where they release energy, make sense of their emotions and life experiences, experience transitioning between times of excitement and calm, learn how to negotiate the needs/wants of others, manage conflict in lower stakes situations, etc.

It is so, so important that children are allowed time to play in various ways, with people and alone, as they like. Kids need to just be kids, without the pressure of behaving as if their brains are more developed than they really are. Capitalism forces kids to act less like kids in order to be more convenient for our work schedules and other obligations. So many things that are essential for kids and adults have disappeared/are disappearing from public life like full recess, after-school programs, safe 3rd spaces, green spaces, etc. And this has and can negatively impact the development and mental health of many kids who grow up to be adults (who still are having their play needs neglected).

Adults NEED regular play too, as opportunities to experience joy, social connection, imagination, curiosity, and accomplishment. Playing is a rare situation where you don’t have to be perfect or grow any skills. You’re literally doing it just for the good feelings. Playing also gives adults opportunities to experience safe times to be excited and hype, and times to release energy without feeling overstimulated or otherwise unsafe.

And speaking of safety, if it’s been a long minute since the last time you played, ask yourself: “When was the last time I felt relatively safe?” Having the energy, motivation, and desire to get some play-time in is only possible when kids and adults feel safe enough. Anyone in fight/fight is too busy trying to get to safety, and anyone in low power/shutdown mode is too busy just trying to survive. Systemic oppressions, like capitalism, racism, sexism, ableism, etc are constantly robbing people of the safety, security, and even community they need to get in the play time that we all need to really live.


Play and Trauma

I promise that I’m going to fully explain what trauma is, how it’s stored in the brain and body, how to recognize triggers, etc. after I explain how our body moves from 1 part of our ANS to another and then cover some exercises that specifically help you identify your ANS and learn your related emotions and thoughts. That said, I want to highlight the point that, due to life experiences and trauma, someone’s neuroception (their nervous system’s ability to sense what’s going on in the outside world) can interpret play time as danger.

Being able to play is a beautiful, pretty complicated thing. You need to feel safe, and you need to be able to hold the energy of your sympathetic nervous system along with the chillness of your ventral vagus. Playing also requires you to be spontaneous, open to change, and open to different things going on at the same time. And all that stimulation could overwhelm someone’s vagal brake. In these emotionally complex situations, autonomic nervous systems in chronic survival mode could have a harder time staying flexible enough to handle the intensity of holding 2 active states at once.

So instead of engaging and keeping the body regulated, someone’s fight/flight could be fully activated, or the person could tip into dorsal vagal shutdown right in the middle of playing. How someone’s body reacts to different kinds of play depends on their history with play, their life experiences, exposure to trauma, etc. Situations that need two states to work together can be really intense for people dealing with complex trauma or any kind of physical damage to their vagus nerve and/or their parasympathetic nervous system in general (Like repeated COVID infections [Forbes LINK] or traumatic brain injuries, for example).


Play As Healing

That all said, just because someone has dealt with trauma doesn’t mean they are doomed to never feel the joy of playing ever again. Actually, it’s very much the opposite. Remember what I said towards the beginning? Play exercises the vagal brake and strengthens the ability to move between ANS states and hold multiple complex feelings at once.

Depending on your current relationship with your body, your past experience with playing, and your trauma history, you may need to start slow and easy. Either by yourself or with help, you could reflect on the kinds of play you enjoyed at different times in your life. Can any of those be updated to fit your current lifestyle? You could also take some time to think about the kinds of play that sound fun or worth trying to you. Or maybe you need a mental health professional experienced in working with trauma to coach you through how to make time for play, how to let your body know it’s safe enough to play, how to track how your body responds to different kinds of play, and how to intentionally engage your vagus nerve’s social engagement center so you enjoy yourself without becoming overwhelmed (or at least know when it’s time to bow out early and go chill).

Over time, playing gives your ventral vagus’s vagal brake more practice regulating itself in lower stakes situations, helping it get stronger. Play gives people more experience with trusting that they can handle feeling intense emotions, that a particular emotion will never be how they feel forever, and that the emotion will end. And playing with people you trust is part of that “relationships take work” and “healing happens in the context of relationships” that social media loves to quote. Play time is part of community building. Few things feel better than 2 or more autonomic nervous systems (aka people) linking up and being on the same vibe.

So, how do you plan on making time for play in your life?

Some Great Play Examples for Adults:

  • Video games (alone, playing in the same room as someone, or playing online with people you like)
  • Board games
  • Do some crafting for fun
  • Get that toy you always wanted
  • Get into creating art or cooking projects for fun
  • Puzzles
  • Dancing
  • Joking
  • Play pretend
  • Daydream intentionally
  • Play in the park
  • Play a team sport with your friends
  • Use a coloring book
  • Karaoke (ideally virtually or with your household these days because COVID)
  • Learn how to play that instrument you’ve been dying to learn for fun, no pressure
  • Gardening for fun
  • Playing dress up with your favorite clothes or costumes
  • Skating
  • Take a fun class
  • Starting a collection
  • Story-telling
  • Playing with pets


Thanks for reading! The next part is going to cover 2 other emotionally complicated situations where parts of your autonomic system work together: Freezing and Fawning – both of these survival responses engage your dorsal vagus and your sympathetic nervous system in different ways to get you out of danger.

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