Along with the rewards of a dance career come numerous sources of stress, from the demands of a busy schedule to challenges in the studio.
"We want to be perfect," says Shuaib Elhassan, a dancer with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, "and we want to reach for the best we can do."
While occasional acute stress—like pre-audition anxiety—is a normal part of life, long-term problems like financial strain, an injury or an abusive work environment can contribute to chronic stress. "When demands exceed coping resources, stress results," says Dr. Jennifer Carter, a sports psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Chronic stress can lead to health problems ranging from depression and heart conditions to prolonged injury recovery. So what are some ways for dancers to cope?
Try mindfulness and meditation
Use a guided meditation app, or take your own meditation breaks by focusing on your breathing, gently returning your attention to your breath when your thoughts wander.
"Mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness of our thoughts and feelings—accepting all emotions, including anger, sadness and fear, as part of the human experience," Carter explains. "Dancers who practice mindfulness skills might notice a thought like 'I'll never get this role,' and gently escort their attention back to their breath without much reaction. This takes a lot of practice!"
Learn cognitive behavioral skills
Identify and challenge distorted and harmful thoughts when they arise. For example, Carter suggests you could gently counter a thought about not getting a role with " 'The role hasn't been cast yet. I've gotten some great roles in the past. I'll take a deep breath and do my best.' "
Make time to connect
Research shows that being proactive about reaching out for help and having a supportive community can make you more resilient. "You become a family in a company, and you learn how to help each other out," says Elhassan, who cites the sense of community at LINES as a key protective factor against stress. "We're all individuals, and we all have different ways of getting help," he points out, saying that for him, a conversation or hug from a friend can be exactly the boost he needs.
Do non-dance activities
Find a free class, play or concert in your community. Sampling something new—even if it's just a different genre of music or film—can refresh your week.
Journal; write stories, poetry or music; draw, paint or sculpt.
Take time for you
Treat yourself to a special morning or evening routine, like making a fun breakfast or listening to soothing music before going to bed early.
Reflect on your priorities
Is there anything you want to move around on your mental to-do list?
Practice saying "no"
Set healthy boundaries, whether that means declining a night out with friends to get some rest, or turning down an extra shift at work to spend time with a friend.
Remind yourself why you dance
"As dance transitions from being an activity of joy to becoming a professional path, it is easy to lose your intrinsic motivation," says Robin Kish, an associate professor of dance at Chapman University. Figure out what is motivating your drive to dance. Kish suggests channeling the memories of times you danced for the joy of movement, without worrying about being good enough or letting anyone down.
Reach out for help
If your stress feels overwhelming, or you'd like to learn to manage it more effectively, make an appointment with a therapist.