As teachers and studio owners, your lives are full of stressors—everything from harried recital weeks to curriculum overhauls to building-maintenance issues, not to mention addressing the needs and concerns of all your students and parents. How you view and cope with a stressful situation can have a direct influence on how you experience it.
You already know it's important to eat right, exercise and get good sleep to keep yourself from feeling run into the ground. You may even use deep breathing to calm or center yourself in tense moments. (If not, check out our breathing-exercise sidebar.) But Joel Minden, a cognitive behavioral therapist who works with dancers in California, says while physical coping strategies can be helpful, they alone aren't enough. It's even more important to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. If you begin practicing psychological stress management as part of your routine, along with relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation, you will be better prepared for the crisis moments.
1. Anticipate obstacles—and success
If you know specific things stress you out, think about whether you can prevent those scenarios from occurring at all. For instance, if juggling parents' questions as a recital draws nearer has overwhelmed you in the past, let them know you'll be off e-mail during recital week, and all issues will have to wait until after the show. Or perhaps you could set an auto-reply directing emergency questions to a trusted staff member.
Jon Aaron, a certified teacher of mindfulness-based stress reduction in New York, emphasizes the importance of reflecting on past successes, as well. He recommends a big-picture view as you consider an impending crunch time. "Part of mindfulness is recollecting—the knowledge that this has been done before by [you] and it's been successful," he says.
2. Use a worry journal.
"Planning stuff in writing is really important," Minden says. Rather than letting your thoughts race from one concern to the next, get organized. If you feel there are hundreds of things that could go wrong—whether it's simply a busy day or the lead-up to a big event—set aside some time to make a list. That keeps the worries from stacking up in your mind. You may find the list isn't as long as you feared, and you can begin to address possible solutions.
3. Distinguish between what you can and can't control.
Some worries are productive, because they can help you make a plan to prevent a problem. Others, less so. As you go through your worry journal, pick out those things you have control over, like your approach to managing parents, leading classes and training staff. Also pay attention to things you can't control, like how other people behave, dancer injuries or weather emergencies. (More on those worries in a minute.)
4. When in doubt, plan the first step.
In his practice, Minden teaches clients instructional self-talk, which you can use to handle a stressful time period or troubleshoot a worst-case scenario—think electrical blackout at the performance venue during dress rehearsal. "Tell yourself in specific terms what you want to do and maybe provide a rationale," Minden says. "When a problem comes up, think about the very first thing you need to do and start with that. If you do that—and here's the rationale—then the problem might seem less overwhelming." In a blackout, for example, the first step might be to get everyone safely seated in the theater.
5. Practice active acceptance of things you can't change.
You can learn to tolerate discomfort, and doing so may help you better handle stressors. In many cases, Minden says, people want to push away negative thoughts and feelings to try to will them out of existence. But often that doesn't work and the feelings return, which can leave you feeling out of control or incapable of coping with the issue. Instead—and Minden notes this aligns with the popular mindfulness movement—acknowledge that you are stressed-out, upset or maybe even feeling depressed. "It's about turning directly toward our experience with a feeling of acceptance and patience," Aaron says. Then, try to get on with what you need to do.
Minden compares discomfort to having an uninvited guest show up at your party. You can spend your time trying to make the interloper leave, or you can accept that they're there and try to enjoy the party anyway.
6. Emotions don't have to drive your behavior.
Minden recommends letting your personal long-term values dictate your behavior, rather than succumbing to the moment-to-moment emotional changes. Values don't change, although they can be temporarily at odds with your emotions. "Tell yourself, 'I accept that I'm thinking these things and feeling this way, but the more important thing right now is, despite how I'm thinking or feeling, I need to focus on my values and the appropriate behavioral response," Minden says. During recital week that may mean showing up to the theater, talking with parents and helping the show go on.
7. Make physical and mental relaxation part of your routine, too.
Incorporate meditation, yoga or another relaxation practice into your daily life. Trying to draw on deep breathing or mindfulness exercises in the midst of a crisis will be easier if you already do it regularly.