April is Stress Awareness Month. What Does That Mean to Dancers?

Guest blogger, Dr Ben Caref.  Caref was a former ballet dancer with the National Ballet of Canada and the National Ballet. He taught ballet and choreographed with the American Dance Center in Orland Park, IL, and Joel Hall Dancers. Dr Caref is now Managing Partner and Chief Medical Officer, Medtelligence. Trained in cardiac physiology and bio-engineering, Ben focused his earlier scientific work on identifying, understanding mechanisms, and the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias.

Dancers use their bodies to artfully express ideas and feelings. Stressful situations are everywhere in normal daily life. Family and friends can cause stress, reports in the news, in schools, and in the dance studio. Dancers can feel stressed trying to master steps while rehearsing for a program, or when the steps or flow just don’t come together. Taken together, it can be difficult on the body and mind.

Stressful situations cause strain and pressure and can take an emotion toil on all humans. Stress is everywhere, and while small amounts may be beneficial, it’s essential to know how to control stress so that over time, without any release, stress doesn’t undermine your true potential.

The body has mechanisms to deal with stress. The endocrine system reacts to stress by producing cortisol from the adrenal glands. It’s part of the flight-or-fight adaptation we possess. It helps us deal with acute situations, and can be a positive feature, like getting “psyched-up” before a performance. So, some stress can be a good thing. But if a stressful situation becomes chronic, too much cortisol in the bloodstream can lead to a variety of poor outcomes such as: interfering with learning and memory, lowering immune function and bone density, causing bodyweight to rise (and make difficult to lose), high blood pressure and cholesterol which over time can contribute to heart disease. It seems far away now but over time it can lead to depression and other mental illnesses too. Clearly, too much stress is not a good thing.

Fortunately, there are many ways to deal with, and turn stress into working for you - instead of against you. First, you must recognize that you’re experiencing stress. Half the battle is in identifying the trigger to stress that is causing emotional (and perhaps physical too) discomfort.

Ways to respond to stress:

  • Regular exercise – Partake in fitness (other than dance) at least 3–4 times a week. Activities should include both aerobic (jumps across the floor) and strength exercise (adagio). Beware though, ballet classes alone will not give you the aerobic exercise that’s needed to maintain a healthy heart and decrease chronic stress.
  • Support systems – Find a core group of supporters and advisers. Listen to your friends or classmates when they are stressed. Let trusted teachers, counselors, or parents have a perspective on what you’re feeling. Talk! Don’t keep feeling bottled up. 
  • Time management – Develop an organizational system. After a plan is made, organization is everything!
  • Calm the mind via guided imagery and visualization – Listen to your favorite music, go to an art exhibition, take the time to try something new.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – Loosen tense muscle groups with massage, therapeutic touch, or props like rollers or balls.
  • Assertiveness training – Work on honest communication (get out of your shell – don’t be afraid)
  • Self-reflection – Express true emotions by taking time for self-reflection.
  • Minimize stress at school, the studio, or at home, and the paralyzing fear it can stir up in your life.
  • Asses what’s working for you and what’s causing stress. Prioritize tasks and organize a new system.

Breathe. Be grateful for the things you have in your life. Do whatever it takes to lower your chronic stress levels, and you will enjoy a more fuller life and be a better dancer too!

Reference

Patricia Potter (2014. Canadian Fundamentals of Nursing (5 ed.). Toronto: Elsevier. pp. 472–488.