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Guest blog: Psychological Skills for Dance Students

Dance in Mind placement student, Nadia Butt, shares some helpful tips and exercises for dance students.

It's no secret that the life of a student is a stressful one, and that dance students face specific challenges in and outside of the studio. Without a strong foundation of self-esteem, dancers can struggle to be resilient to the demands of their training: dealing with criticism, maintaining motivation, anxiety about assessments, to name just a few. While a small amount of stress can drive us towards our goals, for those who experience high anxiety, it can become debilitating. Thankfully, there are a number of psychological skills that we can learn and practice to help us manage the demands of our training.


Breathwork for anxiety:

In a practical dance setting, you might be familiar with how breath can be used to change the state of your mind and body, but did you know that you can also use breathwork as a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety? Breathwork is a somatic approach to calming the mind and body. You may have heard of ‘Rest and digest,’ which refers to the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest and controlled by the vagus nerve.


· The first step is to build awareness of how your emotional state is affecting your performance. Cognitive anxiety refers to the negative thoughts that we experience, such as excessive worrying. Somatic anxiety is when this physically manifests in the body (e.g., “butterflies” in the stomach)

· Closing your eyes and listening to biofeedback such as your heart rate, breathing rate and muscular tension can give you an indication of how your body is responding to stress or worry with somatic anxiety

· Taking long, deep inhales through the nose releases nitric oxide, which can improve oxygen circulation by widening your blood vessels. By triggering a relaxation response, you can help to ease muscle tension that inhibits coordination

· Increasing the length of your exhalation stimulates the release of a chemical transmitter called acetylcholine, which slows the heart rate

The Box Breath technique can help you can measure the length of your breaths by counting in for four seconds, holding for four, exhaling for four and then holding for four.


Journaling for negative thoughts:

It is not uncommon to engage in negative self-talk, and although these thoughts often occur automatically and subconsciously, they are self-limiting and hold us back from our true capacity as students and artists. Keeping a thought journal can help us to notice when negative thoughts arise and challenge them with a more realistic and constructive perspective.


· Start by having a space dedicated to this practice, whether that is in a physical journal, or a digital document

· Write down any negative or self-critical thoughts that you notice

· Note the event that triggered your negative thought

· Try to rephrase the thought to be realistic and positive


For example:

Thought: “I feel insecure about my performance in class today”

Trigger: Not enough sleep last night which affected concentration levels and made it difficult to learn the material.

Challenge: “Just because I didn’t perform well in class today, I can still perform well tomorrow”


Paying so much attention to your thoughts can feel vulnerable, but by allocating time to unload, you can create space between yourself and the thought so that you can observe it more objectively. This technique can also be used in response to receiving feedback, so that you can apply suggestions made for your benefit, rather than feel hurt by them. If you struggle with comparing yourself to others, you can also use thought challenges to understand what you can achieve by turning insecurity into motivation.


This exercise is not about ignoring your emotions, but by shifting the consequence of your thoughts from being self-detrimental to motivational, you can increase your feelings of competence and confidence.


If you find this approach useful, you can use a thought diary to help you work on negative thoughts more systematically.


Imagery and relaxation for focus:

It is likely that as a dance student, you already have many goals, or you can derive some from journaling. Whatever you are striving to achieve, imagery and relaxation are useful tools to reduce distractions, enabling you to focus your attention on your training or performance.


Herbert Benson’s method incorporates accessible meditation techniques to help you feel aware, focused, and relaxed.


· Find a quiet place with minimal distractions and stimulation

· Sit in a comfortable position

· Pick a single word that does not activate your thoughts, such as ‘calm’ or ‘rest’ and say it aloud with each exhale.

· Focus all your attention onto the word and repeat it continually.

· Other thoughts and images might appear, and that is okay. Try to let them go and return to your breath and word


Affirmations are positive statements that can be used to develop self-belief and focus on personal goals. Combined with the somatic effects of breath and rest, this mediative approach optimises your sense of wellness necessary to align your actions with your intention or goal. It does not matter how many times your mind wanders but commit to returning to your affirmation. Ideally, this can be practiced for 20 minutes a day, but it is quite difficult to quiet the mind. Due to the relaxation response, it is not ideal to practice this immediately before training or a performance. Try dedicating 2 minutes in the morning, on your commute, and again in the evening when getting ready for sleep to start this practice, and gradually increase the duration as you gain confidence.


Practice, practice, practice!

It is important to understand that these skills are like any other: practice and consistency are key for the best results. Used in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle, you can start to take control of your anxiety and negative thoughts. Take time to congratulate yourself on getting this far in your practice and for committing to your vision. You can do it!


Thanks to Nadia for writing this fantastic blog! If you would like to go deeper into some of these exercises, have a look at my courses.


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