Thursday, February 25, 2010

Playing more can help avoid burnout
Stress for Success
February 22, 2010

Is “free-play,” spontaneous versus structured play like sports, genetically programmed into us? Is it a survival skill?

The animal kingdom sheds light on this. Do young animals play? If you’ve ever had puppies or kittens, seen animals in the wild or watched squirrels in your yard you know the answer’s a resounding “yes.”

Play may be a very ancient evolutionary development. Rats that had their neocortex removed, the brain region in humans involved in executive thinking, still engage in normal play suggesting that the urge to play originates in the brain stem, a portion of the brain that preceded mammals. “This means that the core, genetically-provided circuitry for play is situated in the very ancient regions of the brain,” explains Jaak Panksepp, now of Washington State University, who led this experiment in 1994.

Research over decades has shown that children who experience substantial free-play develop more normal social, emotional and cognitive skills. They become better adjusted, smarter and less stressed.

Play is also important to adults. It’s one of the best ways to stave off burnout, which is very important since burnout is difficult to defeat, especially when it’s advanced.

In the 1980s I burned out quickly after only two years in the mental health field. I could barely get out of bed on Monday mornings. Again, in 1998 I became burned out after caring for both of my parents with their respective end-of-life illnesses. I lost virtually all interest in my work, which was highly unusual for me since I’ve always loved my present profession.

Both bouts of burnout required drastic changes of me. The first episode pushed me to quit working for others and start my own business. The more recent spate motivated my husband and me to sell his business and our home to travel the country for a year in a motor home. I doubt any tweaking around the edges would have cured me since I allowed my burnout to reach fever pitch requiring a total makeover to recover from it.

A much better prescription for avoiding burnout to begin with is to get enough play. Without it, your lifestyle’s frenetic busyness can wear you down.

Here are three ways to increase adulthood play. To be effective, make sure there are no time pressures and goals to accomplish:
* Physical play requiring active movement;
* Object play using your hands to create something you enjoy;
* Social play has you joining others in social activities from conversations to games;

Do something that’s fun for you. What did you enjoy doing as a kid? Can you do that again in your current life? Spend time with kids who are playing. Don’t wait for work to lessen because it doesn’t. Schedule time for play or you won’t do it.

Don’t worry that it’s wasting time since it will make you more productive at work. Splurge by doing something fun at least weekly. Use it or lose it; have more fun or you’ll lose the ability.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Free-play a serious matter
Stress for Success
February 16, 2010

My mother often said, “You’re young so short a time. Enjoy it. Play. Don’t try to grow up so fast.” And play we did. Didn’t you? With neighborhood kids we rode bikes, swam at the community pool, had snow-ball fights, and played Simon Says until we had to go home.

Many kids today are experiencing very different childhoods. “Free-play” is losing some of its luster. A 2005 paper in The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine stated that children’s free-play time decreased by 25% between 1981 and 1997. Structured activities like music lessons and sports are taking its place in parents’ attempt to get their kids into the right schools. But this reduces free-play.

Kids who don’t experience free-play may grow into apprehensive, socially neurotic adults and are at greater risk for violence. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, CA, found that most killers had two things in common: they were from abusive homes and they never played as kids. From his research he discovered that a lack of unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults.

A 1997 study of children living in poverty and at high risk of school failure found that those who attended play-oriented preschools were more socially adjusted later in life than those who attended play-free preschools where teachers continually directed them. By age 23, more than one third of kids who’d attended play-free preschools had been arrested for felonies versus fewer than one tenth of play-oriented preschoolers.

“The consequence of a life that is seriously play-deprived is serious stuff,” Brown says. But it’s never too late to start.

But why is free-play better than structured activities like soccer?

According to University of Minnesota educational psychologist, Anthony D. Pellegrini, “games have a priori rules – set up in advance and followed. Play … doesn’t have a priori rules, so it affords more creative responses.” This challenges kids’ developing brains more than following predetermined rules by using their imaginations trying out new behaviors and roles.

Free-play versus being told how to behave helps kids develop stronger social skills. By interacting with peers, they discover what’s acceptable and what’s not. They learn to be fair and take turns or risk losing friends. When having fun, they don’t give up as easily when frustrated as they might on a school problem, which helps them develop perseverance and negotiating skills. Additionally, to keep things friendly kids must communicate, the most important social skill of all. Peer play is the most important in this respect since children use more sophisticated language when playing with other children than when playing with adults.

According to Gordon Burghardt author of “The Genesis of Animal Play,” the free-play activity shouldn’t have a clear goal and children should initiate and create their own scenarios like pretending to be doctors or play house.

So, I guess my mother was right to let kids be kids. Mental well-being and social maturity are more important than getting into the perfect school anyway.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at

Monday, February 08, 2010

Focus on your goals, but don’t miss out on today
Stress for Success
February 9, 2010

Balance: a state of equilibrium, equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.

Seeking balance in your life is a cornerstone of stress management; such as don’t under- or over-exercise, if you’re too passive you’d be wise to become more assertive, etc.

Another area in which it’s wise to seek balance is in where you focus your energy: on tomorrow’s goals or today’s life.

Author of “Finding Flow” Csikszentmihalyi encourages us to create lives of greater meaning and happiness with less ruminating on the negative by continually working toward goals. “ ... goals shape and determine the kind of person you become. Without them it’s difficult to develop a coherent self.”

But some people take this to the extreme, putting too much energy into pursuing goals creating an imbalance. They continually focus on the future while missing much of today, like the hard-driving career person who approaches a beautiful sunset without even noticing it. Being goal-oriented is great, but not to the exclusion of the here and now.

Others would say focusing on future goals is largely a waste of time because, as Buddhists believe, one’s reality is in the present moment; the here and now. To practitioners, focusing on the future means missing reality. Living in the moment facilitates mental and emotional balance because it means giving up your worries about the future and your regrets about the past. Besides, working so tirelessly on goal attainment often doesn’t bring you the satisfaction you’d hoped for anyway.

But focusing exclusively on the here and now may not prepare you for the future. The reality of our economic society, for example, requires knowing where your next paycheck is coming from to pay bills and that requires at least some level of planning for the future.

This is where balance is important. Over-focusing on tomorrow means missing today; ask parents who concentrated on work and missed their kids growing up. Over-focusing on today may find you in love with the spontaneous but forgetting important work deadlines or other commitments.

The trick is to seek balance. The more an imbalance pushes down one side of the scale the more you need to rectify it by doing something quite different to create a better equilibrium. For example, you high-speeders racing into the future might want to balance your goal-focused tendencies by increasing your mindfulness of things you do daily, like playing with your kids and focusing your attention on their touch, adorability, and the good feelings inside you when you interact in a loving way with them. Regular meditation would be great for you allowing you to be more aware of the present.

If you tend to mostly live in the moment, scraping together your rent money, prepare a budget and figure out where your necessary income will come from. Set goals of how to adjust your income and expenses.

Seeking a balance in how much you focus on the present and the future allows you to enjoy the journey as well as plan for and secure your future.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is a speaker and a Stress Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at Email her to request she speak to your organization at