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TJ Matton, LCSW-C

Why So Serious? How Playfulness Brings Breakthroughs in Trauma Therapy

At what age does play stop being effective? Meaningful? Vital? The answer is never.

If you’re immediately skeptical, or confused, you’re in good company. For your entire life, society has reinforced that play is an action taken by children. As we age, liberated play is discouraged in favor of more purposeful and skills-based play that’s “acceptable” and “productive”. By learning that play is childish we disconnect from the depth and significance of play as we age. The result is a play-deprived adulthood that feels simultaneously bland and overwhelming.

The start of my play curiosity began with frustration. There is so much emphasis on mindfulness, self-regulation, and coping skills. And while I appreciated those skills for myself and my clients, it left me with a deep longing. It left me constantly asking  “Is this as good as it gets? Am I doing this right?”

This frustration was always with me and mindfulness felt akin to learning to be a well-behaved child. What was I supposed to do with the inner child who longed to dance freely and sing poorly? What was I supposed to do with this adult who cared deeply about liberated self-expression in a world that loves self-control?

I couldn’t quite point to what my inner child was longing for. I wanted to feel more alive, more in the world, expressive, abundant, and joyful. I wanted and needed to be practicing these things but there was no road map. And I noticed this same longing in my clients. Mindfulness felt like it was only one side of the coin. Where could I learn about the practice of living?

The cost of play deprivation

What I found out was the depth of play-deprivation myself, my clients, and I believe, most adults, are experiencing. The freedom from the thinking brain and the melting of the clock and the embodied liberation of impulse, curiosity, creativity, and spirit.

My clients longed for their own way of living that felt meaningful and expressive. For this, we cultivated playfulness. As a concept, mindset, and practice to complement traditional mindfulness.

As humans, we’re designed to play—to explore and engage our world with curiosity. This drive to play isn’t just a biological instinct; it’s deeply personal, woven into the fabric of our being from the moment we enter this world until our last breath.

Play and trauma are intrinsically linked. Play is a vulnerable state where we embrace uncertainty with openness and curiosity. We abandon power dynamics while maintaining a feeling of empowerment. We feel in control without feeling controlling. Trauma is the obliteration of play. It is the abuse of power. Horror cuts into the safety of uncertainty. Belonging, safety, and connection become experiences manipulated by dynamics rather than abundantly experienced with love. It is the clinging to protective patterns in an attempt to find certainty and prevent that kind of pain from ever happening again.

The loss of play comes both from incidental trauma as well as the multitude of ways we push it down in this patriarchal and profit-driven culture that suppresses the human spirit and is leaving us in an anxious, overwhelmed, and disconnected culture.

Reclaiming your playful self

So how do we begin to reorient to play? We reclaim the language and cultivate play as a practice in our own lives and in the lives of our clients. Learning play means identifying the difference between trauma patterns and play impulses. Play is a blended sympathetic and parasympathetic state and this is crucial to understand because play is not calm. It is an activated state that teaches us grounded exploratory engagement. If we neglect the play state, it is easy to miss the play impulse and see it as impulsivity. If we neglect the play state, it is easy to miss the play drive to feel in control and see it as controlling.

As a clinician, in addition to the traditional components of my clients’ treatment plans, I integrate play. Our play drive is what holds our curiosity and creativity. It is how we test out new ideas, behaviors, theories, and ways of living. By integrating playfulness into assessment and treatment planning, I’m able to create a more person-centered and strengths-based approach to healing.

As therapists, how do we go about differentiating trauma patterns and play drives? It comes down to the body’s experience of the moment. Helping our clients build enjoyment, engagement, and embodiment skills to understand what is driving the body’s response. Because play is an internal experience that you cannot see, only the client knows if it feels like a protective pattern or enlivening play.

Rekindling the Spark: Play as the missing piece of mindfulness

Trauma-informed play means empowering adults to trust their impulses again by engaging in activities that evoke small doses of vulnerability and uncertainty yet feel meaningful, tranquil, exciting, or joyful—even in the smallest doses—and nurturing these engagements.

The success of the mindfulness movement shows how wellness interventions can become mainstream practice. And, I encourage you as a clinician, adult, and human to view play as the neglected side of mindfulness. We all deserve the right to expression, joy, embodiment, and exploration held within the practices of playfulness.

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