It's a fact of life: Dancers get stressed out, whether the cause is being passed over for a part, a bad class or an upcoming performance. But there's a difference between a few preshow butterflies and debilitating stress that keeps you from enjoying your passion. Dance Spirit asked the experts about how stress affects the body—and how to minimize its negative symptoms.
Stress and Health
Insomnia. Upset stomach. Chest pain. These are just some of the ways that stress manifests in your body. Yes, it has more-recognizable emotional and mental ramifications, like feeling overwhelmed when you think about balancing homework and rehearsals, but the physical symptoms of stress are just as important for dancers to notice. Lynda Mainwaring, PhD, a sports and performance psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, explains that stress immediately triggers the release of hormones that initiate a "fight or flight" response, causing symptoms such as sweating, headaches and knots in your stomach—feelings familiar to every performer. But, she says, "if you keep experiencing stress over and over again and you don't manage it properly, it can wear and tear on your body." Chronic, long-term stress can contribute to high blood pressure and weaken your immune system, making future illness all the more likely.
Ease Physical Symptoms Through Self-Care
It's unlikely that you'll be able to eliminate stress from your life entirely—after all, dancers purposely place themselves in high-pressure situations. Angie DeWolf, a dancer at the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based José Mateo Ballet Theatre, suggests that young dancers engage in activities outside of the studio that make them happy. In fact, simple laughter can aid in muscle relaxation, while positive thoughts can release neuropeptides (chemical signals in your brain) that combat the effects of stress.
Make sure that you're fueling your dancer body with nutritious food and that you're getting enough sleep. Mainwaring says that lack of sleep and poor nutrition are stressors themselves, and can exacerbate physical symptoms like trouble focusing and stomach problems.
At the end of the day, give yourself time to decompress. Use meditation, yoga or other body-mind centering practices to focus on your breathing, bring fresh oxygen and fluids to your muscles and organs, and release headache-inducing tension. These practices can undo fight-or-flight responses, lowering your blood pressure and slowing your heartbeat, to help you slip into a restful night's sleep.
Address Psychological Symptoms With Perspective
Stress is a normal part of life, but dancers with perfectionist tendencies can let small worries spiral out of control. Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Alecia Good-Boresow often sees dancers' daily in-class frustrations—like troubles with pirouettes—grow out of proportion and become major stressors. She suggests giving yourself room to calmly try the troublesome step again, and if it's still not working, giving yourself a break. "After a certain point, if it's just not clicking at that particular time, we usually say, 'You know what? Let's table that for today,' " she says.
Mainwaring recommends adopting a pre-performance routine in which you do everything you can to prepare, leaving nothing to chance or to the last minute. Then, practice trusting yourself and your preparation: Tell yourself "I've got this." Sticking to a tried-and-true routine can help you remember that you've tried your hardest, rather than beating yourself up over should-haves and would-haves.
When to Get Help
If feelings of stress are dominating your life, it's time to tell an adult who can help you put things in perspective and come up with coping strategies. Mainwaring suggests finding someone you trust and feel comfortable with, either at the studio or outside of it. She adds that if stress is manifesting as physical symptoms, you should talk to a MD. Tell the doctor how you're feeling, what's bothering you and what your symptoms are. The physician may be able to help; if not, he or she may refer you to a therapist or psychologist who can.
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)
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