Stress Less

Photo by iStock; Graphic by Josephine Dano

(Photo by iStock; Graphic by Josephine Daño)

You’ve got a huge exam and a 20-page research paper due this week, and your ballet teacher has added extra rehearsals for your upcoming performance. You can’t sleep, you snap at your parents whenever they talk to you, and you feel like crying when your teacher comments on your sickled foot in jazz class. To say you’re stressed would be an understatement.

People experience stress in a variety of ways. You may have tense muscles, difficulty sleeping and shortness of breath, or you might be irritable and unable to concentrate. You might even find yourself avoiding the things causing your stress—for instance, skipping class or rehearsals. You may also experience low self-esteem and irrational thoughts, such as thinking that one bad class means you’ll never be a professional dancer. These symptoms are bad enough in the short term, but over time, they can lead to injuries, illness and the desire to quit dancing entirely.

Luckily, you don’t have to let stress run your life. Here are five ways to manage your stress so that you can hit the studio and stage feeling calm and focused.

Focus on the Things You Control

“We all have a ‘circle of influence’ that contains things that we can control,” says Dr. Peter Lovatt, director of the Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. “There’s little point in being stressed about things outside your circle of influence.” Lovatt says that mastering a double pirouette is something you can accomplish by learning the proper technique and practicing. On the other hand, “you have no control over whether there will be a vacancy in a particular dance company for you,” he says. Worrying about things you can’t change is counterproductive because you decrease the time and energy available for things you can.

Break the Cycle

Stress symptoms are often interrelated. “When we’re stressed, we lose some of the awareness of and control over our muscles, which can make us question our competence and become upset,” Dr. Lovatt explains. This physical symptom and emotional response can make you feel even more stressed, creating a vicious cycle. When you catch yourself spiraling downward, slow down. Identify how your stress manifests (for example, muscle tension and irritability, followed by trouble breathing). When you notice those symptoms, make a conscious decision to relax before things get worse.

Dance for Yourself

“It’s great for dancers to be able to move for self expression with no audience,” says Sara T. Workeneh, MA, ADTR, NCC, a registered dance/movement therapist and counselor who also teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. “Move alone in the dark. Do Qigong [a Chinese practice involving breath, movement and energy] or yoga.” Moving without the pressure of having to do it “right” can remind you of your love for dance and help you express emotions you might be unable to articulate in words.

Rest and Recover

“Apply yourself in activities that are different from dance that will allow your body to relax while it’s engaged, such as swimming or hiking,” Workeneh says. However, be wary of jumping headfirst into a new form of physical activity when you’re already stressed. Instead, practice your non-dance exercise of choice once a week to prevent stress. If you can, work outside. “Outside contact, feeling the earth under your feet and breathing fresh air, is important to feeling and being grounded,” she says. “It impacts one’s ability to have clarity of mind.”

Focus on the Present

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, give your full attention to a single task. For dancers, that means focusing on the specific dance class you’re in, one exercise at a time. “Don’t worry about what will happen in the performance next week, or how you did in class yesterday,” Lovatt says. “The more you can relax and focus, the more control you will have over your body and mind.”

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