Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Understanding Anxiety and How it Effects your Irish Dancer Performance
Raise your hand if you, or someone you know, deals with anxiety within some aspect of Irish dancing? I bet all of your hands are raised high in the air (along with me) right now!
If you are someone who suffers from anxiety with your Irish dancing, you are not alone.
Anxiety can show itself in a number of different ways (fear of injury or falling, debilitating nerves on competition days, inability to eat, etc) and on a wide range of levels. And anxiety can be scary when it begins to impair your dance performance or life.
I am with you. I have dealt with anxiety on various levels as a competitive Irish dancer, professional Irish dancer, teacher and coach. And I have witnessed so many Irish dancers, dance teachers, and parents experience the same.
This blog is here to serve as a starting point to help those suffering from anxiety (and their supporters) better understand anxiety, how it effects your dancing, and important tools you can utilize to be courageous in the face of anxiety. By highlighting some of the most cutting edge, evidence based research we can begin to foster an awareness surrounding your anxiety and master your emotions. This overview also includes resources for those who are interested in getting more information from licensed clinicians.
Remember…you are not alone.
Causes of Anxiety for Irish Dancers
Irish dancers are faced with many situations that can cause stress at class, competitions and performances. Those stressors are categorized into two types, performance stressors and organizational stressors.
Performance Stressors are related to preparation for competitions, fear of falling or injury, opponents, pressure, technique issues, etc. Performance stressors are related to anything surrounding your actual performance.
Organizational Stressors are related to elements outside of the performance such as the dancer’s environment during training and competition, their role on team or at class, leadership, relationships with peers or teachers, etc. (4).
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety has a wide range of physical, psychological and emotional symptoms that will vary from dancer to dancer.
Physical symptoms include sweating, increased heart rate, breathing rapidly, upset stomach etc.
Psychological symptoms include difficulty making decisions, perceptual changes, memory issues, etc. (1).
Emotional symptoms include anger, withdrawal from dancing, etc.
Anxiety is a cycle that a dancer can get stuck in. Understanding the anxiety cycle is the first step to exiting it.
Trigger - dancer is triggered by a feared thing or event which causes the anxiety response (previous injury while dancing, slippery floor, poor placement at a major, etc)
Thoughts - associated with the trigger and encourage the anxious feelings (“I am afraid I’ll fall”, “What if I don’t medal?”)
Feelings - emotions brought on by the trigger and thoughts (butterflies in stomach, sweating, nausea, etc)
Behavior - the result of the anxiety cycle in which the dancer “protects” themselves by avoiding things or situations or develops rituals to protect themselves (checking shoes are tied over and over, miss class or competition, etc.)
Anxiety can become harmful when an athlete interprets their thoughts as negative emotions (6). When an athlete begins to see their anxiety as something that will impair their performance, this can increase their physical response and the negative thoughts related to the trigger (5). These irrational fears are often related to a dancer’s performance or how their performance is evaluated. Fear of failure and the fear of how they look to their teacher, parents or peers are two of the biggest contributors to an athlete’s performance anxiety found in research (9).
Fear of Injury or Falling
The fear of injury or falling elicits a decrease in performance and increase in the probability of a dancer injuring themselves or falling as found in the psychophysiological model of risk (10). So the fear of injury, increases your risk of it, and injury increases your fear of it…the anxiety cycle continues.
Many elite dancers may categorize themselves as a perfectionist. The skills that got them to that high level, like attention to detail, are also the same ones that can cause a anxiety response or “choking” under pressure. Think about how many notes you need to remember in the first two seconds of your soft shoe round - explode out of the gate, extend legs, shoulders back, arms in, high on toes, turn out your legs, power on your jump, timing, etc. Perfectionist can become more worried about making mistakes and fear as if they’re failing in the eyes of their coaches, parents, or peers. Research has show that athletes with higher levels of anxiety were most worried about approval from others and that an environment with critical or punitive feedback can be detrimental to these athletes reaching optimal performance (2).
Courage, Tools & Breaking the Anxiety Cycle
Breaking the Anxiety Cycle
Anxiety is a habitual cycle and in order to break it, a dancer must develop a new mindset and “rewire” their brain to overcome their fears. Fostering awareness and mastering your emotions can allow you to become more effective in doing so. What happens when you feel anxious? Instead of reacting right away, give it space and make a positive choice on how to cope.
The typical response to an anxiety provoking situations is avoidance. But avoidance ingrains fear. It will provide us temporary relief but will further reinforce the feeling and situation that makes us anxious. Developing challenging but doable steps that help us face our fears will allow us to get our emotions under control.
A dancers ability to overcome anxiety is directly related to their belief that they can do it (3). And in most cases, this self-belief is based on previous performance (8). If the previous performance is a negative experience, the dancer should begin taking baby steps towards overcoming this experience. Along the way, praise for their effort and a commitment to moving forward will reestablish their self-belief and history of success. Praising the process, not the outcome. It is hard to make yourself feel confident enough to take these baby steps. But you can choose to face each step along the way with courage. Be courageous in the face of your fears and anxieties.
The way you think and talk to yourself, effects the way you behave and feel. But the way you think (“I’m so bad at this”, “I can’t dance on that stage”) is not always correct. Negative self-talk has been shown to hurt your confidence, increase anxiety, and lower the enjoyment of what you’re doing. Whereas positive self-talk decreases anxiety, improves concentration and focus, and allows you to perform better. Like any other Irish dance skill, positive self-talk is a hard skill to master and takes practice.
Routines & Rituals
Have you ever heard about an athletes pre-game ritual and the routine they follow before a game? Basketball star Lebron James tosses chalk into the air and Serena Williams walks on to the court for every match listening to the same song. These are cues that trigger to them, “it’s go time”. Having a ritual or routine leading up to the event increases a dancers ability to cope and help them stay focused on what they need to accomplish (7).
Training your Mind
Visualization, or imagery, is a mental rehearsal that builds upon your strengths and helps eliminates your weaknesses. Studies have show that a regular visualization practice will
• reduce anxiety
• build and maintain confidence and focus
• develop coping strategies
• maintain existing skills without adding stress to your body and avoid irritating existing injuries. (8,11)
Four Tips to Creating a Powerful Visualization Practice
Tip #1 - Make your visualization practice a habit
The more you practice, the easier it will become and the stronger your imagery practice will be. Start with 5 minutes a day and find a time that works for you - first thing when you wake up, while driving to dance class, before bed, etc.
Tip #2 - Set the Stage
Image your surroundings - what does it look like, sound like, smell like, feel like? Smell it, hear it, taste it, feel it…be all the way in it!
Tip #3 - Visualize what you want
Give yourself permission to dream and push the boundaries. Clear your mind of negative thoughts and “what ifs” - “what if I fall?”, “what if I don’t recall?”, “what if I blank on stage?”. Picture that perfect dance day and go for the gold!
Tip #4 - Add Emotion
Ask yourself, “how does it feel?”. Way down in your gut, and in your heart, how does it feel? When you finish that perfect round during your visualization, you are pumped up! Feel it!
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
When it gets to the point where your anxiety interferes with your performance and quality of life, that is the point where you may want to invest in getting additional help from a cognitive behavior therapist. Studies have shows that CBT is a powerful tool that helps elite athletes improve their performance by being able to handle stress more effectively and has significant benefits on their emotions and performance.
Anxiety is a part of many dancers lives. And anxiety can have a positive impact on performance and motivate a dancer to perform at their best. But if you find that anxiety impedes your performance, it’s time to begin taking those baby steps to reshaping how you respond to anxiety and/or talk to a health care specialist.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
- Winston Churchill
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