Understanding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and What It Means for Dancers

All dancers get tired—eventually an intense rehearsal or class schedule can take its toll. But some of us experience something greater than periodic tiredness: chronic fatigue syndrome, which is persistent or never fully goes away. Here's how to address and reverse the effects of chronic fatigue and get back to your fully energized self.


What It Is

“Chronic fatigue syndrome can also be called overtraining syndrome," says Bené Barrera, Houston Methodist athletic trainer for Houston Ballet, describing how the syndrome often presents itself in dancers. “It's an imbalance of physical activity to rest. And since dancers are used to placing intense demands on their bodies every day, it's hard to recognize in yourself."

Chronic fatigue can stem from sudden or long-term changes to your schedule. Are you reeling from the first few days of a summer intensive? That's an acute increase in your activity. Is it Nutcracker season, with weeks of shows ahead of you? That might result in cumulative exhaustion. In either scenario, lack of proper rest and self-care can result in chronic fatigue. “If you wake up feeling tired, that's a bad sign," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers.

“There has been an uptick with this presenting in younger dancers," Barrera says. “Dance is such a specific skill set that it's important for people to train intensively when they're young." But specialized conditioning at the expense of all else can lead to exhaustion, burnout and increased risk of injury.

The Diagnostic Process

Think you might be suffering from chronic fatigue? “Your doctor should first rule out other causes, like hormone or nutritional deficiencies and past injuries and illnesses, and then make a diagnosis based on the information that's left," Barrera says. Be prepared to describe your symptoms to your doctor, and answer questions about changes to your workload and rehearsal schedule. Health care providers can discern what's abnormal for you based on your medical history. What might indicate that you have chronic fatigue, rather than normal tiredness? “There's a feeling of not being able to regroup," Kaslow says. “Chronic fatigue exists on a continuum. If people ask you how you are and you always say 'tired,' or you pass up things you used to do, like doing a center combination one more time, you might become aware that your exhaustion is increasingly dominating your life."

Addressing Chronic Fatigue

The only cure for chronic fatigue is rest, both physical and psychological. “Once you have a diagnosis, you have to address it right away, because chronic fatigue is persistent and can be cumulative," Barrera says. “You need to let your body repair." What if it's competition season and you're not in a position to rest? No dancer wants to be perceived as someone who complains, but “if you're starting to struggle with your energy, let people know," Kaslow says. “A good teacher should ask if you need to take care of yourself." And, she adds, dancers can watch out for their friends and voice their concerns if a peer is consistently drained.

Both Kaslow and Barrera agree that addressing chronic fatigue means time off from dance. Exactly how long should be up to your doctor. While that can be a terrible thought, working through exhaustion could be worse. If you continue to push yourself, you'll be more likely to burn out—or get injured. “Dancers are competitive and that fuels their desire to do more and more," Barrera says. “But sometimes less is more."

Tips to Tackle Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

• When you're able to take a break, rest but don't come to

a full stop. Instead, try out cross-training activities like swimming or yoga, which are gentle and restorative. “You need to explore other ways of moving because your body is used to doing one set of movements," says Bené Barrera, Houston Methodist athletic trainer at Houston Ballet.

• Reassess your meal plan. “You need to eat clean, but eat plenty," Barrera says. “It's critical to understand your nutritional requirements so you're

not working at a nutritional deficiency."

• Think about what you've accomplished and set new goals. Dancers are often fixated on improving by doing the same thing over and over again. “Take time to really enjoy your successes," Barrera says.

• Try mindfulness exercises. They can help control stress associated with an increased workload. “When you're in the shower, notice the water and what it feels like. Really pay attention to what you're doing," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers. “There's evidence that these kinds of exercises help the body repair physically, too."

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