Play and the Feel Good Hormones
There are chemical and biological reasons why the act of play makes you feel better. Even 30 minutes of play can unlock powerful feel good hormones and change the way the brain responds to signals it receives. These feel good hormones – endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin - are the key to some incredible mental health benefits, including improved mood, reduced stress, greater happiness and a feeling of being more alive.
Every time you play, your body releases chemicals known as endorphins that interact with pleasure and pain receptors in your brain. If you’ve ever experienced a “runner’s high” after a particularly good workout, that’s the result of powerful endorphins being released in your brain. Endorphins can make you feel more positive and energize your outlook, and may even help to block sources of pain in your everyday life. Through vigorous, active play, then, you can boost your self-esteem and even trigger a euphoric outlook on life.
Also known as the “love hormone,” the “hug hormone” and the “touch chemical,” oxytocin is a powerful hormone and brain neurotransmitter that helps you build more powerful relationships with others. In fact, Stanford University researchers have found that any activity that causes people to bond to one another – such as hugging or playing together – releases oxytocin. Even the act of recognizing familiar faces in a group setting might be enough to trigger oxytocin. So, if you’re looking for more trust and stability in your relationships, it’s time to explore play that involves physical touch with other humans.
Dopamine, usually referred to as the “reward drug,” is a powerful feel good hormone that provides a boost of pleasure and contributes to happiness, enhanced cognitive ability and improved ability to learn and pay attention. The one caveat here is that too much of dopamine may be a bad thing, given that dopamine is also linked to addictive behaviors such as gambling and drug use. The bigger picture, though, is that any form of play can act as a strong reward mechanism for the brain. The more you play, the more you want to play, creating a strong positive feedback mechanism for changing your life.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that impacts your mood, ability to sleep, memory and learning. It’s most popularly linked to preventing depression. That’s because researchers have found that an imbalance in serotonin levels can lead to negative moods, including anxiety and panic, as well as depression. By engaging in play, however, you can balance your body’s serotonin levels in a natural way that helps to protect you from the impact of stress and negative stimuli in your environment.
Researchers have found that the state of play helps to produce all four of these powerful feel good hormones – endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. It’s no wonder, then, that play can produce so many positive mental health effects. Warding off depression or living a happier life may be as simple as going out to play in the park or spending an aimless day at the beach.