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A psychologist uses circus arts to help high-performers deal with burnout. Here’s what you can learn from it

November 27, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC
Sherry Walling is a clinical psychologist, speaker, podcaster, author, and mental health advocate.
Courtesy of Sherry Walling

I lost my dad and my brother the year that I turned 40. In addition to grappling with grief, I was running a business and raising young children. It was a rough year. So, I did what every reasonable middle-aged entrepreneur and mother would do in this situation. I joined the circus.

I’d dabbled in aerial arts a bit over the years. I’d taken a few silks classes, and even tried the flying trapeze. It was fun, but also painful and very physically challenging. It never seemed like the best investment of my time and energy—I had a business to run.  

But when my grief and overwhelm turned into burnout, I found that I needed that once casual hobby like I needed air. The flying trapeze forced me to focus my thoughts, manage my breathing, and talk myself through both frustration and fear. It integrated my thinking brain, emotional energy, and physical body into one singular focus. As I climbed the ladder, I left my worn down intellect on the ground. Things became very simple: breathe, listen, focus, hold the form, do the trick … don’t fall. 

The flying trapeze helped psychologist Sherry Walling manage grief and burnout.
Courtesy of Sherry Walling

As a clinical psychologist for leaders and entrepreneurs, I’ve since adapted the three components of circus arts that helped me most—movement, play, and hobby—for my clients. Leadership teams and individual executives, including some from Fortune 500 companies, have joined me to climb the ladder to find a brief, but meaningful pause from the well-worn paths in their brains. 

All of them are high-performing entrepreneurs; many are dealing with burnout as well as grief from loss. While some clients have lost loved ones, loss also comes from the companies they are building: the need for layoffs, a failed product launch, even the sale of a business leading to an owner exit creates significant stress.

Burnout is like a repetitive stress injury to the brain. Treading the same neural pathways over and over—daily routines, long hours and the strain of thinking through the same kinds of problems day in and day out—eventually wears those cells out. Research increasingly supports this, with studies finding burnout can cause cognitive impairment, “leading to distinctive changes in the anatomy and functioning of the brain.”

More than just an emotional strain, burnout is physical. It lives in the body. Our best prevention practices include physical movement as a way of creating neurological diversification and resilience. When we’re moving, we use different sets of neurons than when we’re using our thumbs to type on our phone. The benefits of movement, play, and hobbies are well-documented, and while each is similar, they are distinct in important ways. Ideally, entrepreneurs and high-octane professionals make all three activities into regular habits (there can be some overlap) to protect the brain. No trapeze required.

Optimize movement

Movement doesn’t have to be extremely physical. In intense forms, movement may not be joyful or playful. It can be tedious; it can be painful. There is a sweet spot. Research suggests 30 minutes of daily exercise three to five days per week significantly alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety, but even smaller bursts of physical activity make a difference.

Movement releases feel-good endorphins and frees the mind from over-analysis of daily decisions by engaging different neural pathways. When your smartwatch prompts you to move, don’t ignore it. Spend five minutes dancing to your favorite song, run up and down the stairs, or walk around the block.

Are you a runner, biker, swimmer, or avid yogi? One small study found these exercises in particular increase hippocampal neurogenesis; the forming of new neurons. There is some debate about whether adults can generate new neurons, but it’s worth trying these exercises for the potential impact of brain growth, including improved memory and mood.

Sometimes, in a pinch, movement can even involve work. Take a few calls while walking outside at a comfortable pace. Play nine holes of golf or a game of pickleball with a colleague instead of meeting at the office. If your job is already physically active, consider low-impact yoga, Pilates or stretching to foster that mind-body connection.

Play and hobbies can also involve movement, but not always.

Play without effort

Play is any non-outcome-oriented activity performed purely to bring joy, with a mindset that removes goals and, ideally, ignores the passage of time. Since entrepreneurs are goal-oriented by nature, this can seem frivolous. But Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play, has said, “Play is a basic human need, as essential to our well-being as sleep.”

I’d argue that play is the antidote to burnout.

Parents and caregivers have an advantage here, since kids are experts. Tagging along with a child’s imagination for a few wistful hours is incredibly freeing. But you can play games with your spouse, friends or family for the same psychosocial benefits, including enhanced mood, communication, problem-solving skills and cooperation. While social play is especially gratifying, you can play solo with a quick crossword puzzle, Rubik’s Cube or New York Times Spelling Bee on your lunch break, so long as you focus more on enjoyment than completion. Let your mind wander while you read clues, hunt words or contemplate tiny colorful squares.

Find a hobby (not a side hustle)

Unlike play, hobbies are often structured and can involve continuity to achieve goals. We want to get better at tennis or oil painting or playing the guitar; we might take lessons. One of my clients, David, has a long history of practicing yoga, so he took up kite surfing to diversify. My friend Barry is really into photography; he takes his camera with him whenever he can.

Crucially, a hobby is not another business idea, or anything you plan to monetize that moves into the realm of work. Whatever gets you into a flow state—something totally engrossing—is a worthy hobby. To ease into any new pursuit, which can seem overwhelming when you think of scheduling or purchasing equipment, try something new and simple that requires a different kind of mental effort than that of your work. If you build software, try writing a short story. If you’re a marketing consultant, take a short coding tutorial online. If you spend a lot of time working alone, take an in-person language class. 

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve heard the motto: I have no time. Remember that these small acts of burnout prevention are better than decreased cognitive functioning. Move. Play. Find a hobby. Invest in your long-term mental health.

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