It’s common for dancers to feel mentally, physically, and emotionally fatigued. Balancing over-booked schedules with academic coursework is hard enough. Now add the uncertainties of a global pandemic, and dancers are undoubtedly stressed. To better handle the stress in your life, let’s identify its roots and work towards stress-relieving habits.
The Biological Costs of Stress
The body is biologically wired to respond to stress and trauma in a variety of ways. During the stress response and in an attempt to survive, the adrenal glands produce two key hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and sustains your energy. Cortisol, which is often considered the “stress hormone,” aids in moving blood flow towards the brain, large muscles, and extremities rather than towards visceral systems like digestion and reproduction.
When cortisol levels are chronically elevated, such as with recurring stress, symptoms like digestive irregularity and menstrual dysfunction can occur. Overexposure to cortisol also impedes your body’s immune function and even promotes low-lying systemic inflammation. The end result?
- Digestive irregularity such as constipation, bloat, gas, reflux, and indigestion
- Poor stamina
- Irritability (a “short fuse”)
- The need for excessive amounts of caffeine to stay alert
- Chronic sickness (due to a weakened immune system)
- Increased risk for injury
Identifying Common Stressors
What’s considered “stress” can range from an upcoming placement exam or audition to the trauma of a pulled muscle from overexertion. It can be tough for dancers to accept the need for a break, especially when in the depths of performance, competition, or audition season. But if any of the biological signs mentioned above resonate with you, then you’ll want to review your routine and ask yourself:
Am I cross-training excessively?
Though it can be tempting to utilize rest days for cross-training, remember those periods of rest are just as important as your actual workouts.
Is my company (or school) scheduling time for proper recovery?
With every class, rehearsal, and performance, it is essential to allow muscles to rebuild from natural wear and tear. This is most difficult when evening performances are followed by early-morning classes. If possible, speak to your administration about adapting recovery time into your schedule.
Am I Eating and Hydrating adequately?
Eating too few meals and snacks, alongside inadequate hydration, are also a common cause of fatigue. You may need to assess whether or not you’re meeting your body’s caloric needs and without obsessing, utilize gentle nutrition to optimize your food choices. Here is a list of resources that can help:
Know The Signs of Needing A Break
Fatigue occurs when overexertion brings upon an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. In addition to the biological cues mentioned above, we can feel fatigued in a number of ways, including:
- Mental fog
- Physical exhaustion
- Emotionally irritable
- Increased cravings for sweets and/or carbohydrates
Such symptoms are your body’s way of communicating that it’s time for a break. Though it can be difficult, time away from the studio (or zoom schedule) might be your best chance to eventually progress. If you’re feeling anxious about the idea of time off, then read this article.
Craving foods high in carbohydrates is often a sign that you’re (1) not eating enough throughout the day and (2) not getting enough sleep. Since carbohydrates are the most efficient fuel source for the body, it’s common to feel a spike in cravings for sugar. Honor cravings and take a proactive approach in reducing levels of stress (see below).
How Can I Break The Cycle?
Chronic fatigue can be detrimental to your health, well-being, and performance potential. While a dancer’s schedule is notoriously difficult to manage, you owe it to your mind, body, and soul to find moments to breathe. Here are few ideas:
- Maintain a healthy sleep schedule
- Eat balanced frequent meals and snacks to maintain blood sugar (this supports energy levels)
- Consider meditation apps like Calm
- Journal to help detangle your most stressful days!
- Seek a professional if you think your symptoms of stress and fatigue are too overwhelming to navigate alone.
The bottom line: listen to your body—REST! Symptoms of fatigue are your body’s way of communicating its needs. Taking a step back is OKAY. Refuel with nourishing foods and prioritize your mental and physical well-being.
Article written with the help from student Abby Haynes. Expert reviewed by Rachel Fine.