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Erica Hornthal: “Surround myself with people who make me feel like the best version of myself”

Years ago I began to notice a tendency toward anger and aggression. It wouldn’t take much to make me yell or curse, which is not my typical personality. So I asked myself what was missing; dance. I hadn’t participated in my primary form of “therapy” for months! I began to prioritize dance in my life […]


Years ago I began to notice a tendency toward anger and aggression. It wouldn’t take much to make me yell or curse, which is not my typical personality. So I asked myself what was missing; dance. I hadn’t participated in my primary form of “therapy” for months! I began to prioritize dance in my life outside of my career and it made a huge difference. Make sure to incorporate creativity into your day. This can be art, music, drama, dance, play, reading, writing, etc. It is vital that we create every day! Just because we are adults doesn’t mean that play, creativity, and imagination are any less important. We have to make time for all of this if we want to maintain a healthy mental state.


As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Erica Hornthal. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor and a board-certified dance/movement therapist. Erica is the founder and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy, a group practice founded in 2011. As an expert on the intersection of movement and mental health, Erica has appeared in publications, podcasts, live news, and radio including WGN, NBC, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, Buzzfeed, Bustle, NBC News Better, Reader’s Digest, Prevention and as a columnist for Dance Informa Magazine, 30 Seconds, and Thrive Global. It is Erica’s mix of talk therapy and body-centered psychotherapy that earned her the nickname “The Therapist That Moves You.” In addition to seeing clients, Erica is a passionate seasoned public speaker with more than 10 years of experience in presenting talks and workshops at Fortune 500 companies, business organizations, women’s groups, professional associations, and universities. Erica resides in Chicago’s North Shore with her husband, daughter, and 2 French Bulldogs. When she is not seeing clients, Erica can be found spending time with family, dancing as often as possible and working on her first book.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

Growing up I always loved to dance, but it wasn’t until I transferred in the middle of sophomore year of high school from Tampa, FL to Chicago, IL that I realized dance for me was so much more than an art form or hobby. It was a coping mechanism. Dance was my therapy and I needed it essentially to survive this difficult transition. I became very involved in the dance company at school as well as in the transfer student organization where I could support other transferees. These two worlds, dance and supporting others through difficult transitions never seemed to coincide. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college when a professor noticed that I was taking dance and psychology courses that she mentioned the field of dance/movement therapy and then my two worlds collided. Dance/movement therapy allowed me to pursue a career in dance and psychology, ultimately using movement in a clinical setting to improve mental health for individuals needing an alternative to talk therapy. I went on to get my graduate degree in dance/movement therapy and counseling, sat for my state licensure, and opened up my own practice dedicated to dance/movement therapy.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

I still think that people hear “mental health” and think “crazy.” There is a misunderstanding between “mental illness” and “mental health.” Truthfully we all have mental health and we need to make it a priority. Furthermore, having a mental illness does not mean you are “crazy.” It means that there is a chemical imbalance or a behavioral response that most likely is there to protect you. Additionally, I believe a stigma exists because we fear what we cannot see. Most mental health conditions do not show any outward signs. Like a cast on a leg tells us that the leg is broken, there is not always a sign that our mental health is in need of mending. Mental illness seems to suggest weakness to some and while that is not the case, people feel they need to hide it so others do not judge them.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

As a dance/movement therapist I have particular expertise in using a combination of talk therapy and body-centered interventions that make mental health accessible to everyone. The fact that everyone has the ability to access movement makes mental health more accessible because it takes the focus away from having to explain or even talk about something that may be uncomfortable or inaccessible. The fact that our movements influence our mood and behavior, takes the stigma or taboo out of mental health because it suggests that everyone has mental health and that everyone needs to be responsible for it. I also try very hard not to focus on labels or diagnoses, aside from needing them for insurance purposes. Often times we hear a label and fear how we will be perceived because of it, or we hide behind the behaviors and personality traits inherent to that disorder as an excuse for how we behave. If we focus on our identity and not allow for it to be enmeshed with the disorder then we can learn that it is merely one part of us and not allow it to define who we are.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

As I have worked as a dance therapist and continued to present workshops it has become increasingly evident that the mind-body connection especially with regard to mental health, is not common knowledge. It was my continued exposure to people who were just hearing this information that sparked my interest in advocating for dance therapy and the use of movement for mental health, outside of exercise. I am not the originator by any means of dance therapy, body-centered psychotherapy, or using the body for mental health. I am however a very passionate speaker who feels called to spread the word and bring this information to a society that is so far from using body knowledge and body awareness for well-being and mental health.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Now is the time for everyone, individuals, society, and the government to embrace this shift in how we treat mental health. Talk therapy is not the only option. We must make “alternative” therapies an integral part of mainstream culture. Physicians, researchers, and policymakers need to realize that just because something cannot be or has not been tested, it doesn’t mean it is not valid. We owe it to ourselves to be more creative with how we treat and recognize mental health issues. Ignoring our bodies has only made for a more isolated, anxious, and dissatisfied society looking for a quick fix or for someone else to tell us what to do. Mental health reform starts with changing how we see treatment and embracing all the possible interventions available.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

1) Check-in with my body.

I make it a point every morning to check in with my body from head to toe in order to identify any tension or stress I am already holding before I start my day. It has been a game-changer for how I move through my morning and take responsibility for my mood rather than leaving it up to “what side of the bed I wake up on.”

2) Move my body to move my mind.

When I am feeling stuck emotionally, I turn to my body. I keep a pad of paper within reach so that I can doodle when I am stuck in thought while writing or just need a break. I change up my workouts so that my body doesn’t get stuck in a rut. I also challenge how I move (what hand I write with; which arm I cross over the other) to increase neuroplasticity and encourage movement on a cellular level.

3) De-clutter my environment.

I notice the connection between stress in my life and how messy my environment is. I’m not always sure which comes first as they influence each other, but I make sure to increase my awareness around my environment and leave time to tidy up when I am starting to feel stressed out. Creating space, not necessarily organization, is what allows me the space in my mind to stop, reevaluate, and take time for self-care.

4) Change my environment.

While I try to take a vacation whenever possible, more often than not, it is about changing up my environment. Taking a day trip, going to a spa, even changing my location in the house, or my posture in my chair can make all the difference in my perspective.

5) Incorporate creativity into my life daily.

Years ago I began to notice a tendency toward anger and aggression. It wouldn’t take much to make me yell or curse, which is not my typical personality. So I asked myself what was missing; dance. I hadn’t participated in my primary form of “therapy” for months! I began to prioritize dance in my life outside of my career and it made a huge difference. Make sure to incorporate creativity into your day. This can be art, music, drama, dance, play, reading, writing, etc. It is vital that we create every day! Just because we are adults doesn’t mean that play, creativity, and imagination are any less important. We have to make time for all of this if we want to maintain a healthy mental state.

6) Surround myself with people who make me feel like the best version of myself.

I do not allow for drama in my life. It is a waste of time and it depletes my energy. I make sure to surround myself with friends, family, and colleagues who inspire me and make me feel like the best version of myself. Conflict and compromise are necessary; the positive aspects of relationships should always outweigh the negative.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

My favorite book at the moment is Bodyfulness by Christine Caldwell. Other books I have found helpful in terms of connecting the body to psychological trauma are The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk and Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. Podcasts to explore are Mind Your Body with Orit Krug, The Trauma Therapist Project with Guy MacPherson, and The Embodiment Podcast with Mark Walsh.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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