Follow along with the transcript below for episode: What the Circus Can Teach Us About Mental Health With Dr. Sherry Walling
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for Episode 417 of Live Happy Now. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this week, we’re talking about how you can improve your mental health by joining the circus.
I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week I’m talking with Dr. Sherry Walling, a clinical psychologist, speaker, podcaster bestselling author, and mental health advocate. Sherry takes a unique approach to processing grief, stress and trauma, using movement as an outlet for trapped emotions.
In this episode, she’s going to explain the connection between movement, the circus arts, and mental health. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:41] PF: Sherry, thank you so much for coming on the show.
[00:00:44] SW: I am delighted to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:00:46] PF: This is a wonderful time to talk to you because it’s mental health awareness month, and I love the approach that you’re taking because it’s very unique. You’ve created something called the circus of grief and joy, which immediately you have to stop and say, “What’s that about?” Because you don’t hear those words together. Can you start by explaining what that is?
[00:01:07] SW: Yes. I am a clinical psychologist in my day job, and my side hustle is as an amateur circus artist. I began, really, my journey with circus in the aftermath of losing both my dad and my brother. I had a significant amount of grief, I was really trying to work that out, and I needed a really physical practice to help me feel alive, to help me get reconnected to joy. I found my way to the circus.
It’s been something that I have now loved offering to others who are in a similar place. Maybe it’s anxiety, depression, grief, and needing a jumpstart in their bodies and in their mental health.
[00:01:50] PF: When you first recommend that to people, when you start approaching people and say, “Okay, we’re going to try circus movement.” Like, “I’ve been therapy.”
[00:01:58] SW: That’s automatically what you think of?
[00:02:01] PF: What is usually the response?
[00:02:04] SW: I think, people think I’m crazy, but I’ll take it. It is obviously, super unusual. But the thing that I really love about circus is it is a little bit of a dance with fear. One of the things that I like to train on is the flying trapeze.
[00:02:21] PF: I love that.
[00:02:22] SW: Isn’t it beautiful?
[00:02:22] PF: Yes.
[00:02:23] SW: It’s absolutely beautiful. But there’s no question that it is an exercise in fear. For people who are already feeling some lack of control or unsteady in their inner worlds, if we can get them in their bodies and have them have this experience of mastery, and with flying trapeze, just climbing the ladder is like automatically, you’re successful. That’s hard. Then, jumping off the platform. You’re in safety lines, you’re pretty protected, but it is a really in the moment feedback loop that says, “You’re alive, you’re brave, you’re capable, and look at you, having a new experience doing something you never thought was possible.”
[00:03:09] PF: That’s amazing. Let’s talk about why movement is good for our mental health. Then let’s go into your journey of how you discovered circus movement. Because we know movement is good, and we could take a walk, we could dance, and you took it next level. First question, why is movement so good for mental health?
[00:03:27] SW: As you’re alluding to, we have some great research around the value of a simple walk a couple times a week. For people who have mild depression is relatively equivalent to having a Prozac or an SSRI prescription. Simply getting moving helps our body in a variety of ways that helps our adrenaline. It helps us with a sense of easing tension by moving our muscles. There’s lots of physiological components. I also think just psychologically, spiritually, it feels good to be in our bodies and moving and not stagnant. Not feel like we’re stuck, we’re growing roots into our couch, and unable to activate or to shift our surroundings or our positioning.
[00:04:15] PF: Yes, because that was one thing during the pandemic, that that people, that whole an object in motion stays in motion, and the object at rest stayed on the couch and binged watch Netflix. I’ve seen a lot of people since then that have had trouble jumpstarting themselves out of that mode of just being sitting and not moving. What kind of movements do you introduce to people?
[00:04:41] SW: At the beginning, anything. I think, one other thing I will say about movement in mental health is especially with grief, trauma, when there’s some shock to our system, our body absorbs that shock. Our body is held in tension. It’s almost liked our muscles are clenched, and we can download that shock into our bodies and it gets stuck there. It stays with us. In that sense, any kind of movement is helpful walking, obviously, great. Cycling. I’m a big fan of yoga. Dance is really wonderful for our brains as well as our bodies. Anything that switches position, moves our muscles, moves things through, has lots of mental health benefit.
I like circus in particular, because of the combination of physical athleticism and artistic expression. In circus, you’re telling a story, often an emotionally significant story. The combination of going on a jog and writing in a journal, together in one action.
[00:05:48] PF: Which is usually very hard to do.
[00:05:51] SW: I find it difficult. Yes.
[00:05:52] PF: When you take someone in, and said, someone’s ready to explore this. Can you walk me through what that experience is going to be, and how you start introducing them, and what kind of movements we’re talking about?
[00:06:04] SW: Yes. I run these workshops called Circus for the Brokenhearted, and we usually begin with just some getting into our bodies. We want to get our breath going, develop a sense of comfort with our bodies, and also understand the why, right? Why would we use this kind of movement to help soothe our souls? We try to get that mind-body connection on board right at the beginning of the day. We do that with discussion, with some simple practices that get us in our bodies. Then, it depends a little bit on which workshop we’re doing, but it can be anything from aerial fabrics, the silks. If you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil and the people rolling down the fabric suspended from the ceiling. Those are beautiful and fun. I also have a workshop coming up in August, that’s flying trapeze as well as circus riding on horses. Most people are thinking, “I could never do that.” But I promise you could do that.
[00:07:01] PF: How? Because performers have trained for years to do those things. How do you take someone through a workshop and teach them those steps?
[00:07:10] SW: Yes. I mean, there’s these wonderful, amazing things called safety harnesses. On the trapeze, for example, you are wearing a harness around your body, and you got someone attached to safety lines all the time. I’ve worked with kids on the flying trapeze or in aerial acts that are six, seven, eight. I’ve also had the privilege of hosting people at age 80, who’ve come to trapeze.
[00:07:35] PF: Really?
[00:07:35] SW: It’s possible, obviously, with really careful coaching and great safety equipment.
[00:07:42] PF: Right. Oftentimes with grief, we hear, “Well, it just takes time.” We think that time is going to heal that. As you mentioned that grief gets lodged in us, how does not just letting time pass? How does encountering that grief and incorporating movement start dislodging it?
[00:08:04] SW: I think when we’re in grief, especially a grief after the death of someone, it can feel like we are also living in the shadowy land at death. I think a lot of people have struggled getting out of bed. You’re just almost frozen. Big movement connects us to our aliveness. We feel the movement in our bodies. We feel our breath. That sense of after you’ve climbed a mountain or done something significant, you want to throw your arms in the air and say, “I’m alive.” That’s what some of these practices can offer. It’s a little bit of a jumpstart or a shock to the system, but in a positive way.
The practice of aliveness, I think, is really important. It doesn’t mean that it makes grief go faster, but I think it can give us a different relationship with our grief, because we’re expressing our grief, and we can hold our grief from the place of also feeling very much alive.
[00:09:04] PF: When people do this, you talked about we’re telling a story. How do they go about telling their story with movement? Because every story is different.
[00:09:12] SW: Yes, this is a little bit of difficult one to describe verbally, but I do have a TED talk called why a grieving psychologist joined the circus, where you can see it visually.
[00:09:22] PF: We’ll make sure we’ll put a link to that. We’ll put a link to that on the landing page to make sure everybody can go check that out.
[00:09:29] SW: Because grief is so many things, right? Elisabeth Kübler-Ross gave us the stages of grief, which of course don’t work meat stages, and they don’t go in a stepwise order. But she did give us this gift of understanding that grief is more than one emotion. If you think about sad, what does sad look like or feel like in your body. Maybe you’re hunched over. Maybe your head is down. You’re restricted. You’re small. But grief is also anger or bargaining or there’s a fierceness to grief. That might be a clenched fist. Maybe you’re staring up at the sky, maybe wanting to yell at God, or having a different expression in your body.
When we give license to ourselves to tell a story, to weave together some different emotions and say, “When I first heard this news, I was horrified. I was sad, I fell down. Then, I got up and I was angry. Then, I sought comfort and I looked for someone to hold or to hold me.” You can tell a story like that in a few simple body postures, in a few minutes, and it’s pretty powerful.
[00:10:38] PF: Let’s talk about your story for a moment and how movement started to change your perception of grief.
[00:10:47] SW: Yes. I came to this work really, as a psychologist first. I worked extensively with people who had PTSD, trauma related distress, and grief is often included in that. I found those hitting the edges of what felt like could meaningfully be accomplished just by talk therapy. That’s not to disparage talk therapy. I believe in it. I practice it. I’m trained in it. I think it’s really important. But there are also these places where I think it’s utility maybe hits a little bit of an edge point.
I trained to be a yoga teacher so that I could teach yoga in my clinic to people who have PTSD, because the breath of yoga, the movement of yoga, even the powerful warrior positions, I thought would be really helpful to my patients. That was in the back of my head. Then, my father was diagnosed with cancer, and we had 18 months from his diagnosis to when he died. Then, right alongside my father’s illness, my brother who had long struggled with alcohol use and some depression, he went down this parallel trajectory of really struggling with his addiction, going to treatment, relapsing treatment, relapsing. People who’ve loved or experienced addiction – people who’ve loved some with addiction, or have experienced addiction themselves will be familiar with that story, unfortunately.
But he lost his battle with addiction and depression six months to the day after my dad died. Part of my brother’s story, I think, was also some complicated grief about how to live in a world without my dad. I was pretty devastated. I needed to find my way back to aliveness in the context of so much loss and feeling like I didn’t have a family anymore. I found a circus troupe.
[00:12:41] PF: How did that strike you? How did it come to you that that was what you needed? Because I think that’s what’s so interesting about you and your approach. It’s like, “Huh, just wouldn’t have thought of that.”
[00:12:53] SW: I wish I’d had some divine word from above that was like, “You. You go to the circus.” But of course, that wasn’t like that. I ended up accidentally in an aerial yoga class, which is where they use the fabric to support your yoga stretching, pretty common. I was like, “This is cool. I dig this.” Then, I saw some people doing more acrobatic, aerial. I was like, “I wonder if I could do that.” I was 40 when I encountered this practice. I have no dance background. I have no – very limited gymnastics background. It’s not like I was a college gymnast, and was like, “Oh, I’ll just take my gymnastics to the sky.” This is something that’s really been cultivated in me as an adult, because I had one spark of loving it and was like, “I think I’ll just do this more and more and more.”
[00:13:46] PF: That is so incredible. Then, as you begin to offer it to people, what kind of changes did you see in your clients when they began participating in this?
[00:13:55] SW: I think, the lightness. I mean, I think the overwhelming feeling is a sense of I didn’t think I can do that and then I did. And, “Oh, my goodness, what else might be possible? What kind of possibility exists in the world if I, as a 40 something, could figure out how to spin upside down on a trapeze?”
I think it brings a little bit of mischief. I think it brings some joy. I also think for many people, because of the way that we train in aerial arts, it’s a team effort. You got a coach. You got somebody holding on to you, and so it takes a lot of trust to take a risk. I think when that happens, when people go through that, they are really encouraged by the provision of other helpful people around them. They’re not alone.
[00:14:49] PF: That can be something that’s really missing after the loss of someone, because everyone’s there when the loss first happens, and then they go on with their lives. Oftentimes, we feel abandoned in our grief. How important is that touch, that bond that they develop with others?
[00:15:07] SW: I think that is extraordinarily important to not feel alone in your grief. Because it is a lonely process, right? Your grief about the one that you loved is going to be different than your sister or your brother or your mother. Even people who are living in the same story feel it differently. It weighs on them differently.
But the ability to be alone in your experience, but in the presence of supportive others is something that feels pretty magical. They don’t have to know what you know, or feel what you feel, but they can be there and be helpful. Circus is a lived reality of that.
[00:15:45] PF: When someone decides to do this, do they just do one class? Do they – what’s the process? Because like grief, it’s an ongoing thing. You don’t take care of it on one day, and then it goes away. What happens? What’s the evolution of this?
[00:16:00] SW: It can look different for different folks. I do a couple day long workshops where people fly in from all over the place. I’m based in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota. People come and have an experience, and maybe they never do circus again. That’s okay. But maybe they have a moment of that thing that I described of like, “I didn’t think I could do that, and look, I did it and I’m proud of myself and I feel alive.” Other people, this becomes a practice. It becomes like a yoga practice, or like any other athletic endeavor, or hobby that is woven into your life. I’m grateful to know a lot of circus artists into their 50s, 60s, 70s who are still active in their art.
[00:16:42] PF: That is absolutely amazing. It’s great for grief. Can you talk about in terms of anxiety, depression, other types of mental anxiety that we have? How does movement, and particularly, circus movement change all that?
[00:16:59] SW: Yes. I think, when I think about depression, broadly speaking, there’s a need for that spark of awake to like, get moving, get going. Depression numbs out all of our sensation, it diminishes our capacity for pleasure. It makes food not taste good, sex be uninteresting, sleep not restful. So, when we’re engaging in an activity that heightens our senses, we can return to a sense, even if it’s just for a short time of like, “Maybe this is fantastic, or maybe it’s horrible. I don’t know, but I’m feeling something.” That’s a baby step. I think that’s an important experience for people trapped in depression.
[00:17:48] PF: That’s interesting. I do want to talk about anxiety next. But that is so interesting, because I know a lot of people who are still having trouble shaking off some of the stuff that has happened the last three years, it’s just been – there’s a bit of –
[00:18:01] SW: There’s a lot of stuff.
[00:18:02] PF: We’ve been through a lot. It’s a difficult thing. They feel like – they’ll say things like, “I shouldn’t still feel this way. But I do. I should be able to just pick up and go back and I can’t.” How does that help change their perception?
[00:18:21] SW: I think the reality is, there’s no going back after grief, trauma, depression, the world in crisis. There’s only a going forward. When we are in movement, we are literally in movement, physically, maybe spiritually, maybe psychologically. We experience that this moment is different than the last moment is different than the next moment. The practice of movement period, I think, is a really helpful reminder that we can’t go back to some static belief about how things used to be. We adapt.
The thing that I love about movement is that although this is not perfectly true, it’s mostly true. One of the things that we have most control over is our own bodies, right? I can choose to move my arm. I can choose to kick my leg. I’m choosing what I do with my own body and that is, of itself, I think, this very profoundly empowered thing that says, with this, with this thing, with this entity, I’m mostly in charge. The world can be spinning in chaos around me, but I can be in my own breath, and I can decide to make my breath slower or faster. I can decide to move my feet or hold still.
It’s very simple, but it’s also, I think, pretty radical to counter a world that feels very out of control, with a body that we can choose to use in the way that we wish.
[00:19:56] PF: It’s such a great reminder to ourselves that we do have some control over what’s going on with us. What about anxiety? Because that’s the flip side of depression and feels much different, feels very different. What does movement do in those cases?
[00:20:13] SW: I think, if depression is wake up, anxiety is like calm down. Come back down. Come back down to internal homeostasis, right? There, I think, is probably no better intervention for anxiety than breath. Our ability to tap into our vagus nerve, which is the nerve that runs from the back of our brain all the way down, our spinal cord has connection points in almost all of our major organs, and that is the part of us that is the calm down mechanism. It’s the parasympathetic activation in our bodies, where we calm down after we’ve been upset.
If we can have a relationship with breath, where we can use our breath to override our anxious mind, our mind that’s going in circles, or spinning like a hamster wheel. Our breath can be the process that slows that down. When we’re in movement, if we’re in movement mindfully, we’re breathing intentionally. Yoga is a classic, wonderful example of this. You inhale with a certain movement, you exhale with a certain movement. You pair movement and breath in such a way that your breath can’t get out of control. It’s almost – well, it’s very difficult to be in deep anxiety, have your mind going haywire, and also have calm, steady, consistent breath.
[00:21:30] PF: Right. It’s very essential for movement to be able to have that breath. That’s terrific. I love your approach to this. What else are we going to see coming from you? We’re going to tell people how they can find you and how they can find more about what you’ve done and enjoy your TED Talk. But what are you going to work on next? Because this is a great, groundbreaking way to approach therapy.
[00:21:54] SW: Thank you. I appreciate you saying that. That’s great affirmation, because sometimes it’s a struggle, right? People are like, “What? You do what?” As I mentioned, this summer, I’m hosting a few different Circus for the Brokenhearted workshops. People can visit my website, touchingtwo worlds.com for more information about that work, and Touching Two Worlds is the name of my book, which is where I really have explored these ideas of how to live in the world of joy and aliveness right alongside living in a world of grief, or illness, or death, or hardship. I hope in my future, I have got more books ahead of me and more circus shenanigans. I also do a keynote talk where I talk about burnout, I talk about mental health, and I bring my dear friend Lynn who’s an acrobat. I speak and she does handstands, and it’s pretty fun.
[00:22:46] PF: Oh, lovely. I love that. Well, this is fun. I want to keep up with what you’re doing, because you have some – because you have a lot to teach us and a lot to offer. As we let you go, what is the one thing that you hope people really take away from this conversation and really stick with them tonight?
[00:23:02] SW: I love the word possibility. I think if we, in our grief, in our depression, in our hardship, can stay open to possibility, the possibility of change, the possibility of feeling different, then we’ve got an opening for healing and an opening for hope.
[00:23:21] PF: I can’t think of a better way to wrap this up. Sherry, thank you. It has been such a pleasure to spend time with you today.
[00:23:26] PF: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Paula.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:23:32] PF: That was Dr. Sherry Walling, talking about how the circus arts can improve our mental health. If you’d like to follow Sherry on social media, download a free chapter of her book, or learn more about her circus of grief and joy workshops, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
While you’re there, be sure and stop by the Live Happy Store to take advantage of our spring special where you can get 25% off storewide just by entering the code Spring 25. Be sure to check out our selection of graphic t-shirts so you can share your positive message everywhere you go.
That is all we have time for today. Well meet you back here again next week for an all new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.