Dr. Shimi Kang – Dr. Shimi Kang MD.

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How a Play Mindset Can Help Us in Times of Uncertainty

play mindset

There are times in life when we all face considerable uncertainty and change. These moments are typical and expected. No matter how change happens, it forces us to reevaluate some, or all, of what we know about ourselves and the world. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, many of us may find ourselves stressfully scrambling to discover how we operate in this new world. But it’s by turning to play that we can adjust to a new normal and learn where we fit in new situations. 

I like to define play as a mindset that embraces curiosity, exploration, and learning through trial and error. This play mindset can be applied to everything in life including reinventing our schools, workplaces, and home life.

Play Helps Us Emotionally Process Situations

When we experience uncertainty and change, we may react with fear and anxiety. So to process our feelings in a more relaxed environment, free of potential consequences or judgement – try play.

Play can act as a kind of test period for the scenarios you imagine could happen. 

Play allows us to imagine, communicate, problem-solve, experiment, collaborate, try and fail, think outside the box, and create, it helps us develop the cognitive skills we need to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century.

– The Dolphin Parent

Through play, children can symbolically act out ideas and complex situations in their world until they better understand them and how they feel about them. As adults, we’ve developed identities and theories about our world that may, from time to time, be disrupted. We may not play as children do, but allowing yourself to play with the idea of a new identity or solution can be a helpful way to process emotional feelings surrounding this change.

Play helps us reduce stress hormones in our bodies and can have physical effects on our health. Studies have also shown that it can lower blood pressure and boost immune function. All these outcomes help our bodies to better process uncertainty without harmful stress responses.

Innovate & Create with Play

Play is the life source of innovation and creativity. When I say the word “play,” many adults may think of tag, sports, or other fun activities that children enjoy. However, consider how attending the theatre, learning a new instrument, or reading a book can feel like a kind of play. 

Imaginative play can be truly transformative. When we imagine fantasy-based worlds, we bend the reality of our own lives and allow creativity to lead us to new ideas.

The Dolphin Parent

In times of uncertainty and change, allowing our minds to imagine new realities playfully can offer up hope, and even excitement, at the possibilities. We allow our creativity to run free, and this is where we can find solutions to problems that may have caused stress and felt impossible before. 

By learning or relearning to play, we can try on new traits or hobbies before adopting them into our reality or identity. It also allows us to practice scenarios or skills before bringing them into the “real-life” realm that often causes stress. 

Make Time to Play! 

For us to remain adaptable in an ever-changing world, continuing to play is vital. There’s no way to freeze our routines and ourselves in life because it always presents changes and shifts. These changes are outside of our control and can result in a great deal of stress — especially when we don’t see them coming. 

Through play, we’re given a chance to process how we feel about changes and can imagine alternate outcomes and new situations. Play offers us the opportunity to experience the world with a beginner’s mind. In these states, we can imagine many hypothetical end-results to see how we may react and cope. 

If your expected and familiar way of life is altered, play can help you reinvent yourself and your reality. If you’re interested in discussing the valuable aspects of play further, I’d love to speak with you.

Get in touch with me today

The Power of Play

The modern day workplace is often not such a happy place. Research indicates concerning trends of burnout, anxiety, depression, absenteeism, presenteeism, and bullying among other common workplace-related issues.1 Thankfully, there is an increased appreciation for workplace wellness and an uptick in counseling and support programs for staff. However, there is a powerful, overlooked activity that can reduce all of these issues while also enhancing mental health, creativity, collaboration, and self-motivation. It is something everyone has access to, often free or low cost, and is inherently fun. What is this secret sauce for personal and professional success? Play!

To be clear, play is best understood as a mindset rather than an activity. It is a mindset of being open to trying new and different things—and learning trial and error. For people of every age, play is directly linked to the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex2—the brain region responsible for discriminating relevant from irrelevant information, goal direction, abstract concepts, decision-making, monitoring and organizing our thoughts and feelings, delaying gratification, and planning for the future. The prefrontal cortex directs our highest levels of thinking and functioning. In addition, play stimulates brain-derived neurotropic factor, which stimulates nerve growth.2 It also promotes the creation of new neuron connections between areas that were previously disconnected.3 Our need to play is so important to our survival that the impulse to play is just as fundamental as our impulse to sleep or eat.

Play has numerous benefits:

  • It develops the “play mindset” of being open to new things and learning through trial and error. Play is an opportunity to make mistakes and learn to take failure in stride. Learning through trial and error is essential to adaptability, a key ingredient in human success.
  • It allows us to discover new things. The human brain likes novelty and releases dopamine and serotonin when it learns new things, and we’re rewarded with a sense of well-being or joy.
  • It helps develop team skills. Play helps us bond socially and develop the values of trust, sharing, and fairness.
  • It improves our ability to innovate and create. Play includes observing, questioning, experimenting, socializing, and networking—key activities in the development of the creative mind.
  • It helps us adapt and become resilient. Because play allows us to imagine, communicate, problem solve, experiment, collaborate, try and fail, think outside the box, and create, it provides us the cognitive skills we need to survive and thrive in our rapidly changing, stressful modern world.

Thus, play is essential to the development of the 5 key 21st century skills of creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and contribution.

Types of Play

Generally speaking, play involves 2 kinds of thinking: divergent and convergent. Divergent play is unstructured, free, and about exploring different ways to do something versus learning the “right way” to do something. It requires creativity because there are no absolute right answers in divergent play. An example would be “wild” brainstorming during a meeting. Convergent play, on the other hand, involves structure, rules, or a “correct” answer like many organized sports and video or board games. It is still healthy and fun but builds less pathways for innovation and creativity.

The National Institute for Play describes various kinds of play.4 Here are a few.

Social Play

People play with others not only because it’s fun but also because they’re driven by the urge to be accepted and belong. Social play is actually essential for the feeling of belonging to occur. Consider the scenario of coworkers who work together for years but never really feel connected to one another or their companies until they “play” together in activities such as company golf tournaments, recreational excursions, and social events.

Storytelling Play

Could there be anything more fundamental across human cultures than storytelling? In Western medicine, we’re often trained to eliminate storytelling in favor of science, but when it comes to motivation, storytelling is far more powerful than scientific studies—and that’s why we see it used more and more in advertising! Storytelling helps us make sense of the world, understand life’s lessons, and—in a magical way—never forget them! I tell my patients stories of celebrities or other patients journey’s as often as I can.

Play via Body Movement

As hunter-gatherers, humans experienced substantial growth in our critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. We learned to think in motion, taking in and processing vast amounts of information from the environment and generating an appropriate response all while moving. By moving our bodies, we move our minds. Scientists at the National Institute of Play believe that “innovation, flexibility, adaptability, [and] resilience have their roots in movement.”2 They also believe that play via body movement teaches us about the world around us and prepares us for “the unexpected and unusual.” To me, that sounds like thinking on your feet! Workplaces could incorporate this by encouraging walking meetings. Not an option? Stand up from your desk, go for a walk at lunch, take the stairs, walk or bike to work, take a dance class, yoga class, or drop in to the gym. Just keep moving your body in new and different ways!

Object Play

By manipulating objects, we’re developing complex circuits in the brain that encourage exploration, assessment of safety, and how to use the attributes of objects as tools. We can bring more hands-on activities to the workplace—sketch out ideas, create models and prototypes with simple paper and tape, place Lego bricks, puzzles, and Play-Doh in the staff room—you get the idea.

Imaginative Play

Through imaginative play, we learn the power of our own minds. Full imaginative play is highly stimulating for the brain, which makes perfect intuitive sense. Why wouldn’t the brain be working its hardest when it has nothing other than itself to work with! People who practice imagination are comfortable with cognitive uncertainty. They’re able to “make up stuff” that doesn’t exist and expand their thinking beyond the unknown. Like all play, imaginary play develops important emotional and social skills. In fact, empathy can simply be defined as “imagining what it feels like to be that person.”

A popular imaginary play activity is visualization. Visualization is a powerful way to de-stress and initiate new neural trails of confidence and creativity. It can also be very helpful in helping meet their concrete, practical goals.

We know that the human brain doesn’t always differentiate between a real memory and an imagined or visualized one. A lot of fear and anxiety we may feel about something is grounded in the uncertainty or unfamiliarity of the experience. Visualization helps familiarize the brain with that activity and builds confidence in trying new and different things. For example, my 12-year-old son is scared of heights so I guided him to use imaginary play or visualization to reduce his fears and prepare for a zip lining adventure we had planned. In the workplace, you can use visualization for anything that seems stressful—speaking to your boss about a raise, a colleague about a sensitive issue, or meeting an important client.

If you can create a clear, confident image of yourself in a situation by building a full positive visualization of the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings you might experience in a successful attempt, you will often be able to translate that positive “memory” to real-life confidence and success. This kind of visualization can also help kids to develop new skills more quickly: you can use it to help give a big presentation, meet a deadline, or improve a 3-point shots in basketball!

Play Personalities

Do we all engage in play in the same way? According to Stuart Brown,2 a leading expert on play, we tend to play via roughly 8 broad personalities: the storyteller, the artist/creator, the collector, the competitor, the director, the explorer, the joker, and the mover. These “play personalities” are neither absolute nor exclusive of one another. Many people enjoy aspects of many or even all 8. Early play provides vital clues to our natural strengths and interests. When we play or grow according to these strengths and interests, we’re rewarded with good feelings via a release of dopamine and serotonin. Why does our biology make us feel happy when we follow our natural passions? Many people forget the second part of species survival—the first part is survival of the fittest (the ability to adapt) and the second part is diversity of the species.

We need all of these play personalities to survive as a species. In an ever-changing environment, when faced with a threat to our survival, who knows if the solution will lie in the mind of the artist/creator or the collector. For complex problems, we need the diverse play personalities to collaborate and exchange ideas for solutions. If we were all engineers, who would cure the world of the bubonic plague? If we were all doctors, who would know how to deal with a flood? If there were no storytellers how would we pass down knowledge? And if there were no musicians how would we bond socially? We’re meant to be diverse because we require minds that think in different ways to create to solve the ever-changing problems we face. Play provides the feelings of well-being and joy that lead us to pursue our interests to develop that diversity. Without play, we’re not diverse; without diversity, we can’t adapt; without adaptation, we can’t survive.

The managers at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discovered just how important play is to success in life. They noticed that although the younger engineers had top grades and test scores from top universities, they lacked the problem-solving skills and the creativity the older engineers had. When they tried to figure out why, they discovered that the older engineers played and explored more as children. They found that many of them had engaged specifically in vigorous hands-on play as children. They were the children who took apart clocks and put them back together, built soapbox racing cars, and fixed appliances. The new generation had fabulous résumés, but they had done very little of this kind of play. To make sure JPL was hiring the employees who had engaged in this kind of play, they shifted their interview process to incorporate questions about a job applicants’ play backgrounds, which, in turn, improved their staff’s ability to tackle and resolve tough engineering design challenges. Now, if you didn’t experience a lot of play as a child, don’t worry! Nature wants us to succeed and we are hardwired to be adapt, learn, and be creative through neuroplasticity. This means every single person has the ability to form new neural pathways. We are all born creators if we just remember to play.

If you want an intelligent workforce, bring in more play. If you want you and your team to have high degrees of empathy and emotional regulation, find ways to play. If you want to be resilient, play more yourself! If you want to access one of the most powerful predictors of innovation and health, all you have to do is follow your own internal drive to play!

The Stages of Loss & How to Cope with Loss

grief-loss-change

Right now, many of us are experiencing a significant loss together. Our lifestyles have been altered to a near-unrecognizable degree. For many, this change has meant a loss of freedom and flexibility in our daily lives, loss of income, loss of security, or even loved ones. No matter how loss comes into our lives, there are certain stages that we all go through.

Everyone experiences loss, and there are a few typical stages associated with it. We all experience loss differently. The stages of loss or grief aren’t linear or universal, but encountering it is universal and has a direct effect on numerous parts of the human brain. For instance, this experience can create a strain on our hearts, due to the effect loss has on stress response hormones.  

So what are the stages of loss, and how can you cope?

Denial

We saw a certain mindset at the beginning of COVID-19. There was the thought that this would “not be that bad” or that it “wouldn’t affect us that much.” This denial mindset is very typical when it comes to loss as it acts as a defence mechanism. It’s your way of ignoring things that seem too big or too terrifying to unpack. It’s normal at the beginning of a significant change or a trauma to deny it to keep life in its familiar rhythm. A good question to ask yourself is, is there anything you are in denial of right now? Your income, ability to travel, your kid’s education? 

Anger

Anger is one of the most visceral responses to loss and is also a phase that scares people. Many will try to suppress their anger or control it, which can end up leading to more anger. 

Anger is directly related to the fight, flight, or freeze survival mechanism in your brain. When we experience loss, there’s a certain amount of confusion. The life we knew and felt safe within has been altered, and there is perceived danger in that. Anger is a perfectly reasonable response to loss but can become unhealthy when you direct it at someone or yourself. 

Blame or Guilt

Blame can occur when people start looking for meaning in the loss. When we search for meaning in life, it often means we’re searching for the reason why something happened. Often going through loss isn’t dependent upon a catalyst, yet many of us search for something or someone to blame.

Some people also feel guilty during this time of hardship. This stage of loss may be less common but is still a genuine phase. Feeling guilt when you’ve lost something can look different. Perhaps you blame yourself for not trying hard enough in a marriage when, in reality, it takes two people to create a relationship. Maybe you blame yourself for not acting sooner in times of crisis when, in fact, you weren’t well informed. Guilt is normal, but it’s essential to remember that loss is a natural part of life, and it’s not your fault. 

Overwhelm or Depression

Loss is overwhelming, and becoming overwhelmed with something can often lead to depression. As we go through the stages, we’re forced to find level footing in a new life that seems unfamiliar. As we said in the previous phase — we’re trying to find meaning in the loss. When we can’t find these answers, the loss can become overwhelming, and we may find ourselves retreating into a hazy confusion of asking, “Why?” 

Remember, there’s no clear answer as to why a change or a loss has occurred. Continuously searching for meaning or answers can lead to mental exhaustion and even depression. 

Acceptance

There’s a difference between healthy acceptance of a loss and unhealthy acceptance. When we accept something as truth, we either accept it and move on with that knowledge as a new part of our reality, or we accept the loss and react to it in a negative way — such as blame, depression, or anger directed at others. It’s important to note that real acceptance is one in which you accept this loss as a new truth in your life. This is the stage where you learn how to factor that truth into your world view and sense of self without trying to control it, change it, or blame it on someone or something. 

How to Cope with Loss in a Healthy Way

When dealing with loss, the best thing you can do is practice self-compassion. It’s ok to feel anger, denial, overwhelm, or any number of emotions. It’s healthy and vital to the healing process to allow yourself to feel these emotions without judgement. When you break a bone or cut yourself, you experience different feelings as you heal. Sometimes, a cut gets very itchy or tight as it heals — it’s no different with emotional traumas. The emotions you feel after a significant change in your life are your brain trying to recover from loss. What can you do to help this healing process along?

Here are a few examples:

  • Journaling — especially gratitude journaling
  • Staying in touch with loved ones and friends for a sense of community
  • Developing a daily routine that feels familiar and gives you a sense of control
  • Taking time to play and allow yourself to smile and laugh at the moment
  • Practicing meditation to calm your mind and focus on the present
  • Eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising
  • Talking to an expert or reading a book about dealing with loss

Coping with loss isn’t simple. I can’t give you a timeline for how long it’ll take — it’s different for everyone. We’ll all experience a variety of loss in our lives, so it’s important to remember to come together and talk about loss instead of hiding away in silence with it. If you’re struggling to cope with loss in your life and want to speak to someone who can help, I’m here for you. Please get in touch with me today.

Overcoming the Myth of Perfectionism

overcoming perfectionism

Is wanting to be perfect so bad? The short answer is yes. Self-motivation and working hard to achieve success are admirable traits. But, you don’t need to be a perfectionist to exhibit these traits. In fact, perfectionism reduces the likelihood of being self-motivated, adaptable, and resilient in the face of life’s ups and downs.

Perfectionism is defined as striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high standards. Combine this with overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations and you have a pretty toxic combination. Perfectionists strive for an ideal that’s based on their conception of “perfect,” but there’s no such thing as perfect. Striving to be something that doesn’t tangibly exist links to a whole host of problems including depression, anxiety, OCD, insomnia, or even eating disorders. These conditions are purely symptoms of a larger problem. When we focus on perfectionism and the causes, we can start to treat the root of the issues instead of simply the symptoms. 

I see people struggling with the negative effects of perfectionism quite often. Understanding all the conditions it causes makes the increase we’re seeing in the number of people struggling with perfectionism that much more concerning. In fact, a study done at Trinity Western University has linked perfectionism, and key personality traits associated with it, to a higher mortality rate in adults. 

Those struggling with perfectionism tend to fixate on failures to an unhealthy degree rather than learning from mistakes and practicing self-care. This fixation can lead to chronic anxiety and low self-esteem at any age. Overcoming perfectionism means looking directly at the perfectionism and where it comes from. Treatment is all about learning to accept that mistakes and failures are a part of life. 

So how do you overcome perfectionism?

1. Admit to Being a Perfectionist

As with most conditions, it’s near-impossible to start treating something or making changes in your life if you’re unaware of the issue. The first step with any condition like perfectionism is to be aware that you’re struggling with it and to make the decision to make a positive change.

2. Re-Evaluate Your Standards & Perspective

The best tool to fight against perfectionism is rational thinking. Talk to yourself like you would a friend, and re-evaluate your own standards and re-define what failure is. This will help retrain your brain to recognize when you’re being unnecessarily hard on yourself, other people, or your progress in life. Work towards replacing more critical and harsh thoughts with more compassionate, understanding statements. 

3. Play! 

The opposite of perfectionism is an openness to making mistakes, trying new things, and learning through trial and error. All this occurs when we adopt a “play mindset.” When we lead with curiosity and openness, we naturally make mistakes that we can learn from.

Test the waters by writing your emails in a different way, trying out a new hairstyle (without fussing), or handing in an assignment without triple-checking it. Learning to find humour in your own mistakes can be a helpful method for overcoming a perfectionist mindset.

A workplace culture that invites new ideas through brainstorming and recognizes that mistakes are integral to innovation will help combat perfectionism. Even arriving late for an appointment will, too. Learn to bring youthful curiosity and joy about discovery back into your life. As children, we don’t always see our actions as mistakes because we’re unaware of the “right” way of doing things. It’s through this playful discovery that we find our way. 

If you’re a perfectionist, the first step to overcoming this affliction is recognizing that these unfair expectations are internally placed upon yourself. Another vital step to ridding perfectionism from your life is to create a clear plan where you can comfortably play with the idea of making a few mistakes in a safe environment. Mistakes are part of life and learning to be accepting and compassionate towards yourself can bring about positive changes to your life. By using a “play-mindset” and becoming more aware of the harmful and irrational thoughts created from perfectionism, you can break free from the idea of “perfect.” Striving to be your best allows you some space to discover new aspects of yourself and appreciate more of the little victories. Try approaching things in life as an opportunity to learn playfully and accept mistakes as life’s greatest educational tool. 

Sometimes, we cannot start this work on our own and may need to speak to a friend, professional, or attend a lecture on the topic. I’m passionate about helping individuals and groups to better themselves and overcome obstacles that they see in their path to success. I mix science-based knowledge into my relatable subject matter to help individuals find balance and understanding in our modern world. If you’re looking for a speaker who can bring science to the stage in an exciting way, get in touch today.

Understanding Burnout & How to Avoid It

burnout symptoms

Research and studies show us that many people actually suffer from stress at higher rates than ever before. And the American Institute of Stress’ research says it’s from a variety of different causes: job pressure, money, health, and even media overload, to name a few. It’s this excess stress that can lead to burnout. So what can we do?

Understanding burnout symptoms and how you can avoid it is an excellent place to start. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout “is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It can come with a variety of symptoms and usually isn’t the same for everyone. But take notice if you’ve been feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted for some time, you’re not interested in activities you used to love, you’re feeling on edge all the time, and you dread going to work or other places. These are all red flags that you’re suffering from some level of burnout.

How Can I Avoid Burnout?

The best way to avoid burnout is to practice self care and better manage stressors in your life. Start with these four areas in your life to keep your stress levels to a minimum.

Balance Your Workload. Even if it’s mostly your work that’s causing you to stress, you should consider what’s going on in all parts of your life. Take a look at everything you have to get done this week, both personally and professionally. Does it all seem overwhelming? If you’re having trouble starting because it all seems too much, take a few minutes to prioritize it and delegate whatever you can. If you’re a business owner, assign some portions of your project to your employees. Ask your significant other to do the grocery shopping this week. Have a friend look after your kids one day after school. Ask your teenager to do the laundry. And although you should always strive to do your best, let go of perfection in everything you do.

Work on Work-Life Balance. Now that you understand the importance of delegation, how you use this newly freed up time is just as essential. Recharge and connect with people you’re with, take a yoga class, meditate at home, or take a class on something you’re interested in. Take a pottery class. If you implement delegation into your life and end working overtime and taking your work home, you’ll soon notice how much quicker you’ll achieve this balance.

Stay Healthy. When we get busy, the first things that tend to fall to the wayside are nutrition and exercise. Don’t let this happen! Take a few extra minutes to prepare healthy meals and snacks, and if you must grab food on the go, remember — it’s just as easy to get a salad as it is a burger.

Exercising is a proven stress reliever, so at least try to take a walk around the block once or twice a day or take your kids to the park and run around with them. Fresh air will do you a world of good, and you’ll almost instantly feel better.

And it’s not only physical health that keeps you healthy — you need to work on your mental health as well! Start journaling your thoughts to get them out of your head, take some time each day to think of at least three things you’re grateful for, and take a few moments to breathe deeply several times a day. Getting into the habit of this type of vitality training will help keep you in a better mood and find challenges easier to accept.

Don’t Ignore It! Often, people feel that they can just push through any stress, and it’ll eventually get better. This has a good chance of backfiring, and you’ll find it hard to crawl out of any feelings of burnout. And, unfortunately, burnout can all too often lead to serious depression. Use all the resources you have to help with stress management and burnout, including employee programs, your healthcare practitioner, and other professional medical help.


If you knew someone could help you use your whole mind and body to be your best self, would you seek their guidance? Book me for a corporate retreat, workshop, or even a small event for your employees, where I’ll give you science-based tools to improve on your vitality training and prevent excess stress and burnout. Find out more information and book me today!