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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