Coping With Stress as a Dancer
Advice for Aspiring Young Dancers by Alisha Coon
DanceLife’s continuing series on pursuing a career in dance
Exams, performances, competitions, concerts, rehearsals, injuries, study, sport, social activities, body aches and pains, pressure from teachers, parents, peers … the list of stress goes on!
Being a dancer comes with a long list of factors that can easily send our stress levels off the charts! Stress is having a negative effect on an increasing number of dancers and unfortunately, as a teacher and dance movement therapist, I am seeing stress affect dancers at younger and younger ages.
When I was dancing with Sydney Dance Company, my stress levels were at an ultimate high and I just didn’t have the tools to cope with the physically and mentally demanding environment. It wasn’t until I actually couldn’t drag myself out of bed every day that I started educating myself in mindfulness and finding tools to use to help me cope with stress.
WHAT IS STRESS?
I recently read a wonderful quote in a book by Paul McKenna that totally changed the way I think about STRESS; “The stress we experience in our own lives does not come from outside us – it is our bodies response to life’s challenges.”
I had always thought of stress as something that happens to me. For example, leading up to an exam I would feel stress because the EXAM is stressful. But in actual fact, I was allowing the exam to make me feel stressed.
You know how some people can say “oh yeah, we have that major exam tomorrow – whatever, it’ll be fine. I might go lay in the park.” … What the??!! That was not me – EVER!! Some people are just naturally happy-go-lucky, optimistic types and don’t let much affect their happy state of mind. Then there are those of us who ARE affected by stressful situations.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO START CHANGING OUR BODIES’ RESPONSE TO STRESS?
- Notice the first signs of stress. For me that comes as a ‘knot’ in my stomach and my mind starts to race off with negative thoughts.
- STOP! … and breathe. Take a huge breath in – hold it for a few seconds – and let it out as slowly as you can (pretend you are blowing air out through a straw). Continue this until you feel you have calmed down enough to think clearly.
- Now, ask yourself “What exactly is making me feel stressed?” and “Why is it making me feel anxious?” Pinpointing things that bring on anxiety for you and figuring out exactly why it makes you feel that way can help you start to understand your stress-responses.
- Put things into perspective. When I am consumed with anxiety it is hard to see the bigger picture. I would literally feel like it would be the end of the world if I didn’t do well in the exam. I have found that by breathing and putting myself in a clear frame of mind, I can more easily put things into perspective and focus on the things that really matter in life – like my health, happiness and sanity!
This technique has been a life-saver for me. These days, when I know I have something coming up that triggers a stress response in my body – I’m prepared. As soon as I feel anxiety start to rise in my chest, or my thoughts start to run off on a negative pathway – I can catch it straight away, calm down my nervous system, refocus and put things into perspective.
HOW CAN WE HELP CHILDREN COPE WITH STRESS?
The technique above can be adapted to help children. For example, as soon as you notice those first signs of stress in your child, you can get them to take some deep breaths and ask them questions like “what are you feeling?”, “what happened to make you feel this way?” and “where are you feeling it in your body?” This is a great question for children as it can be difficult for them to articulate how they are feeling in words, especially when they are anxious or angry. Then ask your child to either focus their breath towards that body part, shake it out, massage it – anything to get the energy to shift from that area. Even try this technique for yourself – you’ll be surprised at how effective it is!
HOW CAN MINDFULNESS HELP YOU COPE WITH STRESS?
Being aware of how we are feeling in each moment is called MINDFULNESS and it is the key to decreasing stress in our lives. Here is a wonderful TED talk by AnneMarie Rossi that perfectly describes why everyone should be learning mindfulness: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yJPcdiLEkI (14 mins)
This talk highlights the effectiveness of mindfulness exercises to;
- train your brain to have focused attention for extended periods of time
- teach us how to sense, identify and regulate emotions
- help decrease stress, anxiety and depression
- increase feelings of well-being and happiness
Lots of love, ALISHA xxx
(Photography: Justin Ridler)
I have created these Dance Cards with beautiful mindfulness reminders and helpful hints for dancers. The perfect gift idea for your favourite dancer! You can check them out at http://www.soundofmoves.com/dancecards/