Why is my anxiety higher than ever?
We have officially hit a year since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. And what a year it’s been… I think many dancers would agree when I say it’s been one heart break after another. As performances were first postponed only a few weeks, then months, then entire seasons. At a certain point, I had to accept this was going to be a long haul.
A year later, things are looking up. Case numbers are declining, studios are expanding capacity, and more rehearsals are taking place, so why is my anxiety higher than ever?
As dancers we deal with a myriad of things that create anxiety on a daily basis. Injuries, body image, casting, contracts - you name it, we stress over it. Why? Because we’re perfectionists. Add a pandemic to that and then what happens… I’ve been actively working on my mental health for nearly three years now and during the past year I’ve had to work on it more than ever. We are all facing unprecedented times. There is no way to know how we will or “should” react to these circumstances. Amongst many hurdles I’ve had to jump over, one recent hurdle proved more challenging than I expected.
I recently started rehearsing again with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Here in Portland we were approved for higher capacity in the studios meaning more dancers, more rehearsals, more normalcy - finally! We’ve also had company meetings discussing exciting opportunities for the future. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, leading up to my return to the studios my anxiety increased. I have always been someone who stresses unnecessarily, but in this instance I noticed a significant increase.
Every little thought would spiral into a catastrophe in my mind, somehow keeping me from returning to dancing. In my head, I took everything in my personal and professional life and drastically exaggerated it into the worst possible scenario. I was exhausted from the constant stress. It was taking up energy that could be better spent towards getting back in shape. Instead of focusing on the excitement of getting to rehearse again, I was so focused on what could go wrong.
I spoke to my therapist about it and she compared it to a form of PTSD; post-traumatic stress disorder. A disorder in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing a traumatic event. Because everything had gone so terribly wrong over the past year, I was convinced that things were now too good to be true. That something was bound to set us back yet again. We know what it feels like to have our world come crashing down. To put our careers and entire lives on hold. There were times I felt lost, unmotivated, discouraged, and angry. Every glimmer of hope was quickly snatched away - a pattern we experienced for months. I grew accustomed to the uncertainty. Now that certainty is coming back into my life, I don’t know how to handle it.
Over a year ago, I never could have imagined the world shutting down because of a global pandemic and therefore no live performances. But now I am painfully aware that anything is possible. I am terrified that something will come along and ruin the plan yet again. That something will prolong my time away from the stage even further. Dance is a time sensitive career and I think all dancers are sick of waiting. I’ve learned that this is why I harp on even the smallest issues; I am trying to avoid disaster at all costs. I am trying to keep everything perfect so nothing else can get in my way.
My therapist helped me realize I have to recognize these irrational thoughts as they come, notice them for what they are, and then let them go. An analogy that has really helped me is to imagine a lazy river. Each thought appears as a leaf. I simply take the leaf, place it on the river, and watch it float away. As soon as that thought is out of sight, I know another will pop up. I repeat the process and slowly feel the weight lifted off my shoulders.
“remember that you have choices with your thoughts and feelings, even if it doesn’t always seem so. Label the stuff that comes in your head as a ‘thought’ or ‘feeling’, then come back to the present moment. Just watch all the thoughts and feelings and don’t let them drive you.... not easy but simple” - Julie Learner, LCSW, Sports Therapist and Performance Coach
After this year, all dancers know what it feels like to have the rug pulled out from under them. It is hard to fully dive in again when our lives, careers, and emotions have been on such a rollercoaster. Throughout my mental health journey I’ve learned that staying present is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. If we focus on the present, we don’t allow the past to control us.
A Cuban-American from Miami, FL, Coco Alvarez-Mena trained at the HARID Conservatory then earned her BFA in dance at the University of Southern California. In 2019, Coco joined Oregon Ballet Theatre as a corps de ballet company artist. She is currently still dancing with OBT while teaching, earning her masters in Sport Coaching, and continuing to advocate for mental health across the dance community.
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