How Dancers Can Manage Stress

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This is a difficult time for dancers and artists from so many points of view. Dancers are always under pressure to do well, to compete, to be perfect. Add to that our current environment where our worlds have been turned upside down with sheltering in place. This has created a situation where daily class, rehearsals, and life in general are no longer anything we can do in a normal way, creating a perfect storm for nutritional deficiencies. That’s why I’m going to focus on the most basic way to counteract physical and emotional stress: your diet! 

My goal here and for you always as a dancer and artist, is to make the complicated simple and encourage you to take small steps to keep yourself healthy and strong while we work ourselves back to some semblance of normal life. The concept of stress is interesting. What one person perceives as a stress doesn’t bother another individual. Could stress be our perception of what is happening to us? And if so, could we change our perception and our ways of coping so that we don’t get worn down and use food to deal with stress? The answer is yes! The relationship between stress and food is very complicated. Stress reduces our ability to choose healthful foods and it also actually increases our appetites for fat and sugar.

Let’s talk about overall stress management techniques to help you deal with those feelings of stress, and then I’ll explain how stress can actually create nutrient deficiencies. Once we know what to look for, it makes it easy to change.

Some basic reminders to reduce your stress and help you cope are the following.

1. Make sure you get your sleep. 
Your dancing body loves routine so try to prioritize getting at least 7–8 hours of sleep every night. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Sleep deprivation will definitely make you crave sugar and caffeine!

2. Practice deep breathing and meditation.
Just calming thoughts down can help reduce those stress hormones which can actually encourage muscle breakdown. Take a walk in nature, plan fun non-dance related activities, and keep yourself inspired with inspiring books, music, and people. Taking regular rests from dance and working out will encourage muscle growth, renew your joints, and renew your energy. 

3. Hydrate properly. 
Even if you’re not moving as much as you used to, creating a hydration plan and sticking to it can help your energy and can keep your digestion regular. You need fluids for every metabolic function so providing enough water can help destress your kidneys, liver, and heart. Take your weight in pounds and divide by two. That number may represent the number of ounces of fluids you need daily. Make most of that pure water, but you can fill in with a cup of coffee or tea, or milk or juice.

4. Eat regularly. 
Again your body loves routine. Our bodies usually feel hunger within 3–4 hours of eating a meal. Plan accordingly. You may need to plan a healthy snack if you won’t be eating your next meal for a long time. That may be fruit and yogurt, or an apple and string cheese, for example.

Now let’s talk about how stress can deplete the body of many nutrients and which foods you should prioritize.

1. B Vitamins
These include thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, folate, B6, and B12. These vitamins are your energy producers and also prevent a certain type of anemia. The foods that contain this important group are meats, fish like salmon, mussels and clams, yogurt, eggs, legumes, leafy greens, sunflower seeds, and fortified cereals and breads.

2. Magnesium
This important mineral regulates muscle contractions, maintains a healthy heartbeat, and helps the signaling between brain and body. Diet sources include salmon, tofu, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, spinach, swiss chard, and avocado. If you decide to supplement always talk to your doctor or dietitian as magnesium supplements might interfere with certain medicines.

3. Vitamin C 
This workhorse for our immune systems and our joints is essential especially now. It reduces inflammation, it helps your body form collagen which is essential for healthy joints, it helps you absorb iron, and is essential for wound healing. The foods richest in Vitamin C are citrus fruits and juices, cantaloupe, strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, kiwi, and red and green peppers.

Your dietary take-home message: Eat lots of fruits and veggies of all colors for antioxidants and for magnesium and Vitamin C, consume whole grain carbohydrates at each meal for B vitamins and fiber, and have adequate protein from lean red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy foods, and tofu for muscle repair and for more B vitamins. Variety is key. Stick to a regular eating pattern and never eliminate food groups if you want to stay balanced.

With a little thought and planning, you can tame your stress and make it more manageable. Do the best you can every day without striving for perfection. Best of luck and keep dancing!

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Marie Scioscia
Marie Scioscia, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian and certified fitness professional working in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. She’s the author of “Eat Right Dance Right,” the definitive nutritional guide for dancers. Her expertise in the dance world comes from being a former dancer, working with the Ailey School, New York City Ballet, the Martha Graham school, and other venues to promote wellness for dancers and all performing arts members.
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