Stress, Dance and the Body

By Haydee Ferguson

Talk to anyone and you will be hard pressed to find someone who does not think their life is, to some extent, stressful.

We live in a time where we are expected to be contactable 24/7 and be able do everything right now. For young dancers trying to juggle classes, competitions, exams, school, homework, friends and family, life can be very stressful. Then on top of all this it seems that that niggling injury just won’t heal… no matter how many times you do your exercises and how much you “rest”. Stress is not just an emotion and something we feel, it has a physiological effect on the body and is quite complex. Let’s try to make some sense of it…

Cortisol is a hormone, which is mainly released at times of stress and has many important functions in your body. It is produced by the adrenal glands is regulated by the pituitary glands. The pituitary is a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain that is sometimes referred to as the “master gland” because of its wider effects on the body. When you wake up, exercise or you’re facing a stressful event, your pituitary gland reacts. It sends a signal to the adrenal glands to produce just the right quantity of cortisol. When we feel stressed, our nervous system goes on high alert, and our brain signals the release of cortisol. This ancient physical response can be basically described as our “fight or flight” response, it can be helpful when we need to quickly outrun a saber-toothed tiger. But cortisol can cause problems if ongoing stress means our bodies are exposed to too much of it. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can cause long-term damage to the developing brain, and can negatively affect the immune system leading to depression, fatigue, reduced ability to heal and eventually more frequent injury. In a catch-22, injury itself is one of the leading causes of stress among dancers.

The dance culture doesn’t help either. Dancers often don’t pay attention to the signs that their body is hurting and it has become a “norm” that dancers carry some kind of injury or pain all the time. I have personally questioned dancers as young as 8 years old who believe that pain is normal! Dancers are often expected to “push through” and just keep going. The injured dancer is often scared to be viewed as weak and is afraid of letting someone down or getting in trouble from their teachers or choreographers when they are unable to perform. When a dancer has to take time off because of a bad injury or they need surgery, they feel like they have lost everything. Injured dancers are often forced to give up roles or take time off compromising their personal identity, and compounding the stress further.

It is important to remember that not all stress is bad for your performance. Stress can affect your performance a good way too. It can help you when it makes you more alert, more motivated to practice, and gain a competitive edge. In the right amount, stress helps you prepare, focus, and perform at your optimal level. Conversely, too much stress or on going stress, can cause performance anxiety, which hurts your health and does not allow you to perform in a relaxed, confident, and focused manner.


What are some ways in which you can manage your stress levels?

1. Breathe

Take slow deep breaths. Place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Inhale expanding your abdomen and chest. Notice how your body responds. What moves first? What is not moving? As you exhale, notice how your chest and abdomen soften back toward the floor. Repeat for 10 slow breaths.

2. Get enough sleep

Teenagers need around 8-10 hours of sleep every night. At this age the brain is going through a lot of changes, growth and development. Many young dancers struggle to achieve this with the demands of dance and school and family however without the appropriate amount of sleep and allowing cortisol levels to decrease some it is possible to develop digestive issues, hormone imbalances, mood changes, and/or issues related to your immune system. Also learn to wind down at the end of a day of performing. It’s generally hard to go to sleep after a performance. The nervous system needs a chance to transition from the heightened state of performing to calming down. The muscles need to relax so that when you go to bed, your nervous system levels out and your cortisol levels lower.

3. Manage your time

Being organised helps decrease stress immensely. However this does not just refer to making sure your dance bag is packed with the correct shoes for that night’s classes and that you get your homework completed on time. It also means thinking about how many competitions, performances, exams and workshops you commit yourself to over the year. Does your dance career really hang on doing 10 different competitions during the year? Should you really fill your holidays with workshops and rehearsals when you should be resting and recharging? Deciding where your priorities are and ensuring that you allow yourself to have times of rest and recovery are very important over the week and over the year to decrease stress.

Zen stones in water

So take charge of your stress. Work on lowering your stress level a little each day so that when a new stressor comes in you are able to think clearly and manage it. Take your breaks and use them effectively. Spend a couple of minutes doing some breathing, mindfulness or meditation while letting your muscles recharge.

But if the stress feels like it is too much to handle on your own, don’t be afraid to seek help from a health professional such as your doctor or a psychologist. Make sure you’re getting the best medical attention possible from an expert who understands the demands of dance. Just the way you take care of injured limbs, remember to take care of your emotions too – your body will thank you for it!

Haydee Ferguson.

Physiotherapist with a dance history spanning more than 25 years.

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