September 2012 | A Better You | Fighting Fatigue

A Better YouBy Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

It’s no secret that dance teachers often have long, grueling hours. Handling your own fatigue when you’re faced with a barrage of personalities, minor emergencies, and classroom challenges isn’t easy.

Dancers are human, and humans have finite resources. Accepting that reality can be hard, but it isn’t all bad. Understanding your limitations can help you regulate your physical and emotional responses.

One way to cope on days when you’re foggy-brained and desperate for a nap is to make sure you’re ready for those days. How? By having a well-planned, well-regulated system in place. Think ahead. Know what to expect. Planning ahead allows us to mentally prepare for the stressful parts of our lives, which means we can summon the extra grit and discipline it takes to handle them as well as we possibly can. And then, once the difficult tasks are behind us, rest, sustenance, and emotional management can work wonders. Endurance comes when there is a balance between periods of stress and rest.

Choosing wisely when you’re considering which actions to take to make the day go better is key. That means making good choices about what you fuel your body with. Eating whatever is on hand and succumbing to junk-food–induced mood swings is not likely to benefit you or anyone around you. And we all know about the countless quick-fix survival products that claim they’ll propel us through our busy, exhausting days.

Take energy drinks, an increasingly popular “solution” to fatigue and overbooked schedules. These drinks work in the short term, but their energy boost comes with a price (see “A Better You: Super-Charged Caffeine,” July 2010). Excessive amounts of caffeine aren’t good for your body, and neither are the up-and-down swings that result, similar to a sugar rush. There are healthier options now, so instead of revving up on drinks containing mostly caffeine and sugar, boost your energy with drinks made of organic and natural ingredients, such as ginseng and ginger. But none of them is effective in the long run. Even “naturally” elevated energy levels are destined to come back down again, often with a thud.

Dance teachers can’t afford such volatility. Coping with long days and juggling an array of personalities and tasks take our full concentration—and discipline—to not only survive but actually enjoy the ride.

If you can’t break away from class or office tasks, do refresh yourself. Water is essential. According to the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (October 2007), foggy thinking starts at just 2 percent dehydration. Thirst makes concentrating more difficult and can deceive us into thinking we’re hungry. If you are truly hungry, stave off the accompanying crankiness with smart choices that will give you an energy boost with staying power. Low-glycemic foods such as blueberries, strawberries, and apples can give a quick pick-me-up; with a high water content, they will keep your blood sugar even until you can get to a meal.

One of the best ways to get through a seemingly endless day is to simply set your mind to “coping mode.” Most people don’t realize that they actually have a choice about how they approach the day, meeting, class, or whatever it is. You can dread it, or you can take a “can-do” attitude.

Some strategies for managing this emotional obstacle include tackling the most difficult tasks early in the day, or whenever you’re at your best, if possible. Avoid difficult situations or decisions that could be done on another day, when you’re fresher.

And delegate. If you can’t reschedule something that’s challenging, or if a difficult situation such as a parent acting out arises unexpectedly, ask a trusted staffer to handle it. If you can’t delegate whatever it is, remove yourself mentally. Being too wrapped up in a situation we can’t control adds emotional fatigue on top of physical exhaustion.

Here’s how: attend to the parent, but make an effort to remove yourself, as if you were watching the scenario from another physical viewing point. Imagine that you’re looking through a one-way window at the environment. Note the positioning in the room of the key players as well as body language. Who is involved and who seems to be holding back? Note whether anyone’s personal space is too crowded, or if the other person adopts a retreating stance. Is there a sense of dominance, such as a touch or a strong forward stance? Simply stepping back a few inches can deflate a charged situation. Plus, changing mental perspectives can help you see something new about the person or situation you’re dealing with. And people often solve problems more creatively when they imagine they’re solving it for someone else.

Distancing yourself without appearing to be inattentive, apathetic, or condescending takes practice, but is a highly effective negotiating and coping tactic. To avoid appearing disinterested or condescending, be subtle (a simple, non-dramatic step back will do), maintain soft eye contact, turn a listening ear, and nod your head to show that you’re still engaged.

When you’re exhausted, allow yourself to stop, slow down, turn the switch to off. In my 24/7 practice, I’ve learned that the work often doesn’t end, even after a big event or deadline. You might rejoice that it’s done, but more is just behind it. Going the extra mile is what creates success for most of us, but prioritizing what can wait is what keeps us sane and physically healthy. Take a cue from Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and say, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Also, set reasonable time limits for routine activities; doing so might just buy you time for a quick nap or an earlier going-home time. For example, a meeting will last as long as you schedule it to. Often we can accomplish the same thing in a 30-minute meeting as in one that lasts two hours if we stick to the agenda and act decisively.

Even bedtime needs to be approached deliberately in order to maximize the chances of a good night’s rest. For example, when I come home at 11pm from a performance, no matter how tired I am I take 15 or 20 minutes to bathe, sip some tea, and do some light reading. That transition time helps me get some true rest and good sleep.

The take-home message here is really one about knowing our personal boundaries—our physical, emotional, and mental limitations. We don’t need to please everyone. It’s taken years of trial and error for me to understand that certain people will not like my style, my office setup, or the fact that I have multiple clients and jobs. And that’s OK. You want to care for your clients, but you also need to care for yourself. It’s a reality.

Fighting fatigue means investigating your sleep habits, work routines, and emotional coping style—and the options you have. Being truthful about what works for you, devising strategies that incorporate these realities, and sticking with them will help make your life, and those of your family and clients, a lot happier.

I have faith in you.