by Angie Berrett
For most of my life, I have felt this tornado of energy and pain swirling inside of me, left from years of child abuse. Nothing relieved this distress until I learned how powerful playful movements can be in healing trauma.
Before you can understand how playful movements are your hidden superpower, it is helpful to understand what happens when your body is trying to defend you.
- When you sense danger, your body activates your autonomic nervous system, initiating a series of responses designed to protect you. Unless you let your body move through the entire sequence, energy and trauma become trapped and stored in your body.
- First, your body goes into “Fight or Flight," preparing to either run or fight. In doing so, the body releases hormones such as adrenaline which increase your heart rate and breathing rate, and prepares your muscles to run or fight. In this stage, you may feel anxious, irritable, angry, jittery, worried, and more. These are uncomfortable.
- If the threat continues, you can move into a “Freeze” stage. Your mind and body become overwhelmed and shut down. Your body releases hormones to immobilize and numb you so you do not feel pain. You still have the energy generated in “Fight or Flight"; just no way to release it. In this stage, you may feel overwhelmed and helpless. Moving out of it can be highly challenging.
- To complete the protective sequence, you need to retreat from the parasympathetic nervous system (“Freeze”) and through the sympathetic nervous system (“Fight or Flight”) to re-establish a sense of control. Discharging that pent-up energy is vital in releasing stored trauma.
Fun, playful, and creative movements are your hidden superpowers, and excellent techniques for engaging with your body to release stored energy and trauma. Play provides a space between your internal and external worlds, creating opportunities to explore different ways of experiencing life. With play, safe, sensory experiences are possible.
The best way to understand this relationship is to play the game, “Red Light, Green Light." When you say or think “Green Light," run, punch, kick; do whatever you would if you are engaged in fight-or-flight. When you say or think “Red Light," freeze in place. Shift through Red Light and Green Light a few times and explore what is happening in your body. Notice what you feel as you move between the two. How did it feel to experience the fight-or-flight response in a playful way? Were you able to experience freeze without shutting down?
Play is effective in healing because all mammals, humans included, are born with brains pre-wired for play. This means you are born knowing how to play. Play is how children learn to navigate the human experience. As an adult, your brain remains wired for play.
So what is play? According to researcher Burghardt (2004), there are 5 criteria for play:
- Play is not necessary for survival.
- Play is voluntary, spontaneous, intentional, pleasurable, and rewarding.
- Play is exaggerated, awkward, precious, or often incomplete.
- Play is performed repeatedly, but not rigidly.
- Play can occur when someone is fed, healthy, and free from stress or competing systems.
Repetitive, playful movements allow your brain to form new pathways, breaking distressing and unhealthy beliefs and behaviors. Creativity, imagination, and playful movements allow you to experience the sensations of your nervous system in ways that feel safe. This increases resilience or expands your tolerance by learning ways to manage feelings associated with fight-flight-or-freeze.
3 playful movements to try
- Octopus on Roller Skates, for when you want to do some fun and silly movements to release energy. Imagine you have 8 limbs with no bones, and each one has a shoe with wheels on it. How would your body move? If this is uncomfortable, try using just your fingers as the octopus legs. As you playfully move, see what shifts inside of you.
- Playful Self-Hug, for when you need some self-love and compassion. Start with opening your hands out wide, and bringing them back together. Ultimately, move up to opening your arms out as wide as you want, then bringing them back in giving yourself a hug. While you hug yourself, give a little shake like you are hugging someone that you love. As you repeat this move, notice what you start to feel.
- Elephant Stomping, for when you feel like you’re too small, too insignificant, or don’t deserve to feel or live big. Pretend you are an elephant walking, stomping one leg and one arm down (your arm can pretend to touch the ground). Imagine that, as an elephant, you are stomping out all the pent-up frustration you feel. Explore how your view of yourself changes.
Trauma survivors often feel trapped in the burden of their trauma and pain. Imagining and pretending to be something different provides opportunities to find relief from suffering.
Playful movements are your hidden superpower. They provide an understanding of what is happening in your body and techniques allowing your body to release energy and pain without re-traumatizing yourself. As such, they are incredibly beneficial for healing trauma.
Angie Berrett is a Registered Nurse, an Intuitive Movement Coach, and an Advanced Trauma-Informed Yoga & Somatics Instructor.
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Kestly, T. A. (2016). Presence and play: Why mindfulness matters. International Journal of Play Therapy, 25(1), 14-23. https://doi.org/10.1037/pla0000019
Burghardt, G.M. (2004). The genesis of animal play. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Wheeler, N., & Taylor, D. D. (2016). Integrating interpersonal neurobiology with play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy, 25(1), 24-34. https://doi.org/10.1037/pla0000018