Beating Burnout: How to Balance College Demands With Your Emotional Needs

January 15, 2020

Life as a college dancer is far from easy. Students juggle classes, rehearsals, exams and performances—not to mention nerves about an uncertain future. Dancers sometimes dismiss what they’re feeling as routine stress, not realizing they’ve actually become burned out, says Nicole Detling, PhD, CMPC, a mental performance coach with Ballet West. While stress is feeling like you have too much to do, burnout is characterized by feeling empty. Dancers facing burnout often experience a loss in motivation, social withdrawal, and changes in appetite and sleep, and they struggle to find joy in dance the way they used to. Fortunately, there are several ways to fight it.

Prevent Burnout Before It Begins

You don’t have to wait until you’re in over your head to get help. Be proactive to keep yourself from getting burned out.

1. Get enough sleep. “If you are not sleeping, you are not going to be able to combat burnout,” Detling says. Sleep is imperative for muscle recovery, mental rest and staving off illness.

2. Use downtime appropriately. Dancers often feel pressured to spend every minute working on their technique, but Detling encourages students to use downtime to recover. If you have a free afternoon, take a nap, meditate or spend time with friends. Don’t feel guilty about giving your mind and body a break. Spending some time each week away from dance can help you be more thankful for opportunities to step into the studio.

3. Remember the power of dance. If dance isn’t bringing you the same kind of joy it used to, try rethinking your performances. Detling tells dancers to imagine someone in the audience whose life could be changed for the better by watching them perform. Remember that dance is a powerful tool that can connect people and change us.

4. Have other hobbies. No matter how much you love dance, you need other passions to turn to when it’s stressing you out. Try dropping in on a pottery class or joining a book club. This can also help you expand your social support system.

5. Talk to your professors. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, sit down with a trusted professor to talk about your situation, says Julia Mayo, assistant professor of dance at DeSales University. The earlier you clue them in on how you’re feeling, the quicker they can help you identify sources of burnout and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Five students in black leotards and pink tights listen attentively at the side of a studio.
Students at DeSales University

Philip Stein, Courtesy DeSales University

Bouncing Back

It can be hard to recognize burnout until you’re in the midst of it. But with rest and the right support system, working through it can be an opportunity to learn about your body and fall in love with dance all over again, says Lindsey Mitchell, a recent graduate from DeSales University.

While taking 21 credit hours, declaring a double major and rehearsing for an upcoming concert, Mitchell started sacrificing sleep and nutrition during her sophomore year. The strain she was under ultimately led to bronchitis and pneumonia. Still, she performed with a 103-degree fever.

When Mitchell sat down with Julia Mayo, one of her professors, to plan her schedule, Mayo pointed out that Mitchell was showing signs of burnout. The pair worked together to create a less intense course load. Mitchell took up running as a hobby and started meal-prepping to make sure she ate a balanced diet. She also decided to help manage the next dance showcase rather than perform in it, which helped her fall in love with a completely new side of dance.