Protecting Your Mental Health

Don't Lose Your Mind!!!!
Dance is an extremely difficult career field. From competition to personal aesthetic and emotional perfectionism, dancers encounter more stressors than nearly any other career that doesn't involve risking one's life or saving/protecting others. Dance Magazine's Jennifer Stahl recently wrote an article about a Portuguese study that suggests that dance training may actually cause psychological harm in the form of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and unwarranted stress under certain circumstances. I think that the study noted in the article could probably use more study (and I've talked about emotional health in training on here before), but I do feel that certain methods of training can instill certain traits that could disrupt a dancers mental state. At the same time, in order to become a true artist, dancers often have to dig deeper and more personally into their psyche and physicality than most others in any other field. Perhaps, this also causes those consequences. Nonetheless, freelance artists often find themselves under greater stress and anxiety than company artists because of how closely tied together their art, livelihood, and careers are to their ability to find and sustain regular work. For this reason, I have developed a short list of valuable ways that I think can help protect dancer's mental health to ensure that they can handle the great amount of stress and anxiety that comes with a dance career.

1. Plan a Day Off in Advance - Many freelance artists will keep on taking work until it dries up. Often, this is out of fear that work will soon cease to appear. In reality, while not getting a day off may temporarily cushion your bank account with a little extra cash, you could possibly be bringing yourself that much closer to burn out. If this happens, you may find that you can't even bring yourself to continue working, which defeats the purpose. If you want to sustain a long-term career in dance, teaching, and more, one day off each week is probably more valuable than a short-lived career.

2. Find Ways to Take "Me-Time" - With all of my media work added on top of teaching and choreography, life can easily turn into never-ending periods of working for everybody except myself. Due to the fact that people are constantly reaching out to me for work, advice, and more, it is necessary for me to find a little bit of time every few days to do something completely for myself (without any guilt for work that has been left aside during that time). Some of my favorite guiltless "me-time" activities include sitting at a cozy coffee shop (preferably one with couches) and sipping a latte with a fresh baked soft cookie, taking a bath with candles and Pandora's "Chill Out" station playing, going for skyscraper walks around whatever city I'm in, and watching aimless videos on YouTube. When I take some time for myself, I don't feel as stressed or anxious about giving so much time to others and find I'm actually more generous with helping people out because I've already taken care of my own needs.
An image from one of my skyscraper walks
3. Develop Friendships with Non-Dancers That Don't Mind Discussing Dance - This one is pretty straightforward. It can become way too easy to only hang out with friends in your dance bubble. Most dancers go through phases where they start seeking friends who have nothing to do with the dance world. For many of those friends, one thing that is shocking for them is the amount of attention, thought, and dedication that goes into a dancer's evolution from student to performance career and beyond. Most don't realize how completely consuming this can be and are confused how dance is always on the tip of a dancer's tongue. I've had friends who were quite turned off by the regularity that conversations on dance become regular topics of discussion. Though, I am lucky to have cultivated a handful of very special friends who don't mind, if not enjoy, sitting around, learning about, and discussing our fascinating world. These friends are definitely keepers, especially for the benefit of having an outside opinion to balance out stressful experiences and internal politics with a perspective different than your colleagues. It is extremely valuable to develop friendships with non-dancers who don't mind, or even enjoy, talking shop. This can offer valid insights and a healthy perspective for looking at certain work-related stressors.

Non-Dance Friends are Important
4. Avoid All-or-Nothing Situations - For dancers, it tends to be all-or-nothing. For instance, if a dancer is trying to lose or maintain weight, they may completely avoid eating anything that they enjoy. Or if a dancer is told that they aren't improving fast enough, they may stop doing outside activities that bring great joy to their lives and enhance their human experience. Approaching situations in this way can lead a dancer to go overboard when they finally reintroduce certain things into their lives or, even, push a dancer into burn out or self-harm if they never indulge themselves. We only get one life to live. And while a dancer does need to make sacrifices to enjoy a dance career, they don't have to give up all things that make them happy in order to be the best dancer possible. A healthy dancer is a person who is balanced and knows how to use moderation to find that balance.

I always treat myself to a chocolate croissant when I've had a bad bus ride from Philly to NYC
5. See a Counselor - If all else fails and you find yourself in an impossible-to-get-out-of rut, do seek outside assistance from a mental health professional. After spending 4 lonely years on the road as a self-touring guest artist, I developed such severe anxiety that I could no longer handle simple stresses in life. I also wasn't aware how burnt out I had become. After a mild panic attack in Lincoln Center before watching a New York City Ballet performance, I realized I needed to talk to somebody about getting my anxiety back under control. I am so proud to be an advocate for people, especially dancers, to find ways to take the best care of their mental health. Many dancers leave home as teens and handle stress that few people experience in their career (let alone at such young, impressionable ages). There is no shame in seeking counseling to help improve your mental health. If you are wondering how to find a therapist, read this recent article, that explains how to find somebody that works for you and how to afford therapy if you don't have coverage.

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