Performers are always striving. There is always another performance, another practice, another class/another training session. When there’s always another benchmark, it’s really easy to get burned out.
Feeling “burned out" is a pop-culture term that is often used interchangeably with feeling stressed, but can also mean burnout. Burnout is a serious physical and psychological reaction to prolonged stress. Burnout has three main symptom categories according to Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter on Psychology Today:
Physical and emotional exhaustion
Cynicism and detachment
Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
When we experience burnout, we feel exhausted, hopeless, and incapable. We are chronically fatigued, may have trouble sleeping, or fall ill more often. We might dread activities we used to enjoy. We feel isolated and cut off from other people or from our own feelings. On the flip side, some feelings like irritability, apathy, and anger can feel intensified. We have trouble celebrating our accomplishments, and we ultimately end up feeling like we aren’t good enough.
It’s critical that performers understand the signs of burnout to identify and correct it when it happens. If some of these symptoms sound familiar, follow these steps.
Notice and name it
The best way to deal with burnout is to prevent it. But when you can’t prevent burnout, notice it when it happens. Otherwise, you continue the cycle of exhaustion and hopelessness.
Often, just naming what we are struggling with provides us some relief. Giving a name, especially a diagnosis for a medical condition, helps us acknowledge that our struggles are real. It also helps us to know we aren’t alone. Only when we accept our situation can we change it. And only when you identify and name burnout can you start to change it.
A core feature of burnout is prolonged stress that leads to emotional and physical exhaustion, as well as psychological challenges like hopelessness, cynicism, and detachment.
Burnout is a serious condition. It is not enough to simply passively rest between practices. You must intentionally rest your body and mind, for a period of time long enough for you to truly recover.
This is one of the hardest things to do when you’re a top performer, but you have to do it. You have another option, but it is most often disastrous — keep doing what you’re doing with dire long-term consequences.
Connect with your “Why”
Why did you start performing in the first place? What about it used to make you excited?
The culture of dance is so achievement-oriented. It’s easy to get swept up in the mentality of dancing solely to hit the next benchmark or accomplishment. But this is a recipe for burnout, and it leaves us feeling inadequate.
When we burnout, we are so detached from the intrinsic joy of performing. Instead of focusing on external factors, focus on how you feel when you dance. Pay attention to the feeling of joy, peace, or expression.
Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side, write the aspects of dance you find draining. What depletes you? What leaves you feeling empty, distressed, fatigued, or burned out? On the other side, write aspects of dance you find replenishing. What drives you, or keeps you going? What are the things that have allowed you to stick with dance for so long? What about dance brings you internal enjoyment?
Determine if there’s a way to spend more time on what brings you nourishment, and less time on what leaves you feeling depleted.
Reach out for support, formally or informally
Burnout is a serious physical and psychological condition. Don’t try and handle burnout alone.
It’s important to reach out to trusted friends and family for emotional support, but also trained professionals. In particular, medical and psychological providers are trained to spot the warning signs of burnout and make recommendations. Compared to a coach or a trainer, these professionals will be better able to determine if you’re struggling with burnout or something else. However, a coach or trainer can be an excellent resource for connecting you with the appropriate professional.
Burnout is a serious medical and psychological reaction to prolonged periods of high stress. Preventive measures are always ideal in the case of burnout, but if you can’t prevent burnout, it’s best to act quickly to prevent any serious negative consequences.
Know the signs. If you’re feeling physically and emotionally drained, exhausted, cynical, hopeless, detached, or unaccomplished, you may be experiencing burnout. Reach out to a professional to confirm and rule out any other conditions. These professionals can also give you recommendations for next steps.
Make sure you give yourself an active resting period to recover. During that time, it will be important for you to reconnect with what makes you excited about dance. With an active rest period, help from a personal and professional support system, and active rest, you can get back to dance the way you love it.
Dr. Marina Harris is a specialist in eating disorders, sport psychology, trauma-informed care, and mindfulness. She currently works as a fellow at the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED) and the Carolina Athletics Mental Health and Performance Program. She also works to make mental health information more accessible through writing. Check out her blog, Letters From Your Therapist, on Psychology Today, or her website, www.drmarinaharris.com.
If you are in need of support in regards to mental health, we have resources including 24 hour hotlines, mental health screening tools, and foundations we love listed at https://www.wearemindingthegap.org/resources