Why ‘Play’ Is Essential for Highly Sensitive People (Yes, Even Adults)

A highly sensitive adult “playing.”

Play is essential to eliminating overstimulation and grounding your emotions.

Imagine two people are looking forward to the weekend. One is thinking about having a leisurely brunch with friends, taking a long walk, and binging her favorite TV series. The other has similar plans, but is also wondering how she will be able to finish all the chores that need to be done, what to do about the simmering conflict with a coworker, whether she will have enough time to rest and recharge… oh, and what she can do in response to current affairs.  

Any thoughts on which of these people is a highly sensitive person (HSP)? If you guessed the second person, you’re probably right. We highly sensitive adults can find it difficult to be playful or look forward to joyful experiences. We may be conscientious and planful, even about the parts of life that bring out the lightheartedness in other people. 

This serious outlook may be related to our sensory processing sensitivity, the scientific term for being highly sensitive. We process information deeply, get easily overstimulated, are empathic and wear our hearts on our sleeves, and are sensitive to subtleties. With so much information to work with and such tender hearts, highly sensitive adults often struggle to give ourselves permission to play.

What Is Play — And Why Is It Important for Sensitive Adults?

Dr. Stuart Brown, a leading play researcher, defines play as a “state of mind that one has when absorbed in an activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of sense of time.” We lose ourselves in an activity that is pleasant to us, making playfulness a highly individualized concept.

We never outgrow our need for play, even if it may look different as we age. Adult play has been shown to incorporate fun-seeking, losing our inhibitions, and causing us to be spontaneous. It can help us experience greater physical, mental, and relational health. These are some serious benefits to being playful. 

If you are an HSP like me (who inherently is serious), it is not too late to reap the benefits of play. I encourage you to accept who you are while you cultivate playfulness and learn to modulate your serious side. That said, here are five strategies for taking life less seriously and learning how to play as an adult.

5 Ways to ‘Play’ as a Highly Sensitive Adult

1. Don’t overschedule yourself — HSPs don’t like to be rushed.

Nothing squelches playfulness like a time crunch. Be mindful of how full your schedule is, particularly since highly sensitive people don’t like time anxiety — they tend to need more time to transition between activities. Leaving open periods in your schedule creates opportunities to be spontaneous and pursue what you enjoy. 

While it may feel paradoxical to schedule time for being spontaneous and playful, most of us know that we are more likely to accomplish something if we put it in our calendars. You can treat play like anything else that you do for your health and schedule time for it. Make commitments to “play” with others, too, who could also use more good old-fashioned fun in their lives, and you’ll be more likely to play, too.

2. Play your own way — try old and new ways of playing.

Each of us likes to play in unique ways. Identify what Dr. Stuart Brown calls your “play personalities” — your preferred styles of playing. He describes eight categories, and most of us have a few that fit us best: collector, competitor, creator/artist, director, explorer, joker, kinesthete (those who play through movement), and storyteller. Recognizing different play personalities can help you align to your preference(s) with who you are as a highly sensitive person. An HSP explorer, for instance, might take an automobile repair class or join a group to practice conversational Italian. Her HSP traits may leave her less inclined to explore by taking part in vigorous political debates or attending a loud, multi-day music festival.

You can also challenge yourself to play in ways that are outside your preferred activities. The explorer might decide to play like a kinesthete and learn a new dance. Or they may experiment with being a competitor and enter a songwriting contest

3. Take lessons from children and animals.

Children and animals usually have more access to their playfulness than adults. And we tend to celebrate play in them, despite holding ourselves and other adults to a more serious standard. So allow yourself to learn from children and animals — including how to move our bodies for the sake of joy, how to connect with others in shared play, and how to create new ways to play.

Try to create opportunities to enjoy playing with children or animals, not just learning from them. Highly sensitive people may be drawn to the simplicity of cooperative activities, like building a sandcastle. We may also find our playful side through our connections to animals and the natural world.

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4. Harness your imagination and let your creativity come to life.

The HSP ability to think deeply is both the curse and the cure to being overly serious. Our ability to imagine, fantasize, and build elaborate mental worlds can help us lose ourselves in a lighthearted alternative to reality. 

Many highly sensitive people have vivid internal worlds that they may choose to externalize through something creative, like the arts or persuasive writing. Other people may keep their imaginings to themselves. Whatever you choose, let your daydreams inform your play and become their own type of play altogether.

5. Set an intention to laugh daily and often.

Developing our sense of humor goes hand in hand with easing up on seriousness. Learning to laugh at ourselves — and at life — can help us be more playful, connect more with others, and feel less depressed. This is particularly important since we HSPs are pretty emotional creatures and easily tear up at everything from a beautiful piece of music to an emotional TV commercial.

So look for humorous moments in your everyday life, learn a joke to share with a friend, make a silly face in the mirror, or find a meme that captures your current situation. Just be sure to avoid humor at the expense of others (or yourself) since that is associated with worse health outcomes. Fortunately, most highly sensitive people gravitate toward the more compassionate forms of humor that help us feel better about ourselves and strengthen our connections to others.

Balancing Play and Seriousness

At times, my highly sensitive therapy clients have expressed a fear that they may not take life seriously enough if they play more. What if they miss something important when they are being playful? That seems unlikely to me. Research shows that our biological drive to play is balanced by our brain’s ability to constantly monitor what is happening around and within us, enabling us to shift out of play immediately. And highly sensitive people’s brains more actively process stimuli, even at rest, than the brains of non-HSPs. 

Your brain has the capacity to balance play and seriousness. Give yourself a chance to build trust in this ability. After all, intuition is one of your strong suits as a highly sensitive person! Bring more playfulness into your life and see what happens. You just might have some fun amid all the seriousness of adult life. In fact, I guarantee it. 

My book, Self-Acceptance and Change: A Guided Journal for Highly Sensitive People, offers a practical approach for you to find a balance between growth and accepting yourself just as you are — serious, playful, or somewhere in the middle. 

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