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Boulder’s Beacon: Embracing Joy and Playfulness in Healing

In Boulder, where the mountains stand as silent witnesses to the resilience of nature, a similar strength is found in the hearts of those who seek healing. Ellie Grey Ashton, a Colorado local with an MS in Psychology, PhD candidacy in Psychology/Developmental Psychology, and an alphabet list of healing certifications, is a testament to this.

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From Adversity to Empathy

Ashton identifies himself as an empathetic leader who earned a “full-ride” NCAA DI football scholarship at the Virginia Military Institute. In his own healing journey, Ashton earned certifications in advanced herbalism, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, alcohol and drug additions, life coaching and Reiki.


Finding Joy in the Journey

Ashton is also currently earning his PhD in Developmental Psychology, focusing on the transformative power of joy and playfulness in the journey of recovery from trauma and PTSD. However, despite his training, Ashton found access to the penthouse level of his healing not through hard work, but rather by softening into the full spectrum of his emotions that enabled him to access joy and playfulness.


Living Life Through A New Lens

How did Ashton find those upper levels of his healing and joy? “What was really transformative for me,” Ashton says, ” was learning to view life as an experience to be had, not as a problem to be solved. That, for me, changed everything. It allowed me to become a phenomenal storyteller by putting the pen back into my hands, as the narrator of my own life.”

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Pain Is Not the Problem

Ashton goes on to describe what he views as a common pitfall in mental health – for him and many others who experience trauma – “we often think pain is the problem,” Ashton says, “so we focus on trying to avoid or control pain. But pain is unavoidable, and it’s also not the problem. Our difficulty lives in the story we tell ourselves about the pain.”

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Re-Writing the Narrative

Ashton goes on to give an example “If I am rejected by someone, that’s painful. But that’s fine. What can become problematic is if I then start to write a narrative about that rejection that extends beyond the single rejection experience and can become related to my identity. Going from ‘I was rejected and that hurt,’ to  ‘I was rejected because… I am unloveable,’ and then letting that story guide my experience and future actions. If I can just let the pain of the single rejection be, and be open to it, and not try to change it or attach or detach from it, then I can move on and let my identity be, and decide in each moment what my story around my life is.”

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You Are Your Safe Haven

“When I am the narrator of my own life, I can then enter the room of joy and playfulness at any time, even alongside pain, and it is in that room that healing can bloom, and I can find my own balance, where I can experience pain and joy simultaneously,” Ashton says. “Then, when I have that safe haven inside myself, I can be safe anywhere I go,” Ashton says.

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The Healing Power of Play

“Accessing joyfulness and playfulness requires complete surrender, and in that surrender, we find the highest form of healing from traumatic experiences,” Ashton says. This profound insight is not just a personal mantra but a beacon for anyone navigating the turbulent waters of psychological distress.

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Not Just Child’s Play

Play is often seen as the domain of children, but its therapeutic benefits extend well into adulthood. Engaging in play can be a powerful antidote to the stress and pain caused by trauma. It allows for a space where one can be free from the constraints of their struggles.


Bridging Back to Balance

For those healing from trauma, playfulness can act as a bridge back to a sense of balance. Counterintuitively, play can provide a way to reconnect with a part of oneself that may have been lost in the shadow of traumatic events. Through play, individuals can explore emotions and experiences in a safe environment, which can be particularly beneficial for those dealing with PTSD.

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Safe Space for Safe Play

“One of the big benefits we say in play,” Ashton says, “is that it enables individuals to access a sense of safety within their own skin, derived from an internal locus of control. That is in contrast to the often-observed need and desire to seek control over one’s external environment to ensure safety.”

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Broad Applications for Diverse Experiences

The role of joy and playfulness in healing is not limited to trauma and PTSD. Its applications are broad, touching on areas such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use. In each case, the act of play can serve as a gentle reminder of life’s pleasures, often overshadowed by the weight of mental health challenges.

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“These small moments of play can add up and they are critical in aligning our actions with our intentions in a way that still maintains balance,” Ashton says.

Ashton’s Approach to Healing

Ashton’s approach is rooted in the belief that healing is a holistic process. “There’s so much more to healing than just treating and resolving symptoms;” Ashton says. “Healing is really about nurturing the entire self — the mind, body, and spirit.” By incorporating joy and playfulness into therapy, Ashton helps individuals tap into a wellspring of positive emotions that can support the healing process.


A Community of Support

Boulder’s community, known for its inclusivity and support, provides the perfect backdrop for this kind of healing journey. Here, individuals are not alone in their struggles. There’s a collective understanding that everyone’s path to recovery is unique, and within this community, there’s a shared commitment to supporting each other.

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Final Thoughts

As we consider the role of joy and playfulness in healing, it’s clear that these elements are not mere distractions, but essential tools in the recovery toolkit. They offer a way to rediscover the beauty in life, even amidst the pain. And in Boulder, with the guidance of professionals like Ellie Grey Ashton, many are finding their way back to joy.

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Dr. Brenna Bray, a local health and wellness coach, stress researcher, associate professor, and avid ultra-marathon mountain runner, holds PhDs in Biomedical Science, Neuroscience, and Complementary and Integrative Health. Her journey through an eating disorder fuels her dedication to coaching, merging personal experiences with scientific expertise. Through her practice, Bray empowers clients to access and harness their innate healing abilities and achieve remarkable health and wellness transformations. Committed to community engagement and holistic well-being, Dr. Bray shapes a brighter, healthier future for all. Learn more about Dr. Bray at www.brennabray.com.

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