November 2011 | A Better You | Surviving Hard Times

Don’t let rough economic seas throw you off course

By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

It’s always amusing when someone greets me by saying that they’d like to do exactly what I do for a living. At such times I think: be careful what you wish for. Those of us in the dance field who manage businesses, offices, and studios know that the work is 24/7. Not everyone is suited for the self-employment lifestyle, and even those who succeed at it may endure some bleak moments—myself included.

A number of years ago when I was in the early throes of menopause, starting a new private practice and a ballet company wellness program, and becoming a writer, I became—to put it mildly—cranky. As anyone who has put together productions and run a studio at the same time knows, there are a million details that at some point just cannot be delegated. Any dancer soon becomes skilled at multitasking as she deals with maintaining her technique, staying fit, and handling rehearsals and finances, and she brings those skills to bear when she decides to open a studio.

Being conscientious in front of a class and creative in basic production values are vital skills, but they may not be enough to survive the added anxieties of a national financial crisis that shows no signs of ending. Every day’s news is a litany of grim unemployment figures, foreclosures, and jittery financial markets. Even if you’ve been relatively unscathed, you’re rare indeed if the turmoil hasn’t touched the people you care about. What’s a studio owner to do to stay stable and on course through unstable times? Here are some tips on identifying when attending to business goes past the due-diligence level into true anxiety and how to handle the stress of uncertainty.

First, examine your muscle patterns. Are your muscles tense, aching, or sore? Do you find it hard to relax when relaxation time comes? (Notice that the question isn’t, “Do you find time to relax?” That’s always a challenge for teachers and studio directors, but it’s one that you can’t bypass safely.) One telltale hint I’ve noticed in my practice comes when I am fully holding someone’s body part. If I have to ask the person repeatedly to let the body part go limp, especially when it’s being cradled, that’s a sure sign of underlying tension. Check it out for yourself during your next massage.

Other physical symptoms of anxiety include shakiness, cold and clammy hands, and a racing heart. Even dizziness, faintness, and difficulty breathing can point to anxiety. A number of my clients, including dancers, have experienced such severe physical symptoms that they were sure they were having a heart attack. Another thought her chest pains and panting were signs of an asthmatic attack. Yet another thought her severe abdominal pains had to be appendicitis. Others might have recurrent migraines or digestive disorders, and so anxiety might go unsuspected because the symptoms often appear to point to those existing problems.

Next, be honest with yourself: Do you suffer from the perfectionism that is often necessary to excel? Has the onstage performance anxiety familiar to every dancer crept into your offstage, post-performance life? Detachment is hard when the subject is yourself, but it’s necessary in order to see clearly how past disappointments, obstacles, and choices affect your present outlook.

What about the rest of your emotional life? In general, do you feel good about yourself and like spending time with yourself? Recently a longtime dance teacher and former professional ballet dancer told me about a rural sabbatical during which she felt aloneness for what seemed like the first time. She’s a popular teacher who thrives on constant attention from students, and she explained that she hadn’t really paid attention to herself, but instead focused on her classes and family. She seemed a bit amazed at the inner life that her sabbatical revealed to her.

Taking care of your physical well-being is crucial as well. Dancing is indeed physical, even if you are just standing and marking rehearsals and classes. Remember to strategize your eating schedule, eating some form of protein every few hours to keep blood sugar stable. Keep plenty of water on hand to keep your mind fresh, and work to get in that seven to eight hours of rest every night. The tedium of the daily grind can add to your fatigue, so plan and consider those outside professional development days well in advance. I find that conferences and other meetings with colleagues keep me stimulated with new ideas, provide a much-needed distraction, and help me gain perspective on my own day-to-day issues.

Renewal, restoration, and realization that this is just one more trial can help you weather the current storm and keep day-to-day worries and irritations at a sub-meltdown level. We all need daily encouragement to remember that this day will end, this crisis will resolve. Make a habit of encouraging yourself. Self-talk is a great strategy to get through that one taxing day, that one I-can’t-stand-this minute.

Worry can be a tremendous obstacle to problem-solving. Taking responsibility is one thing; endless ruminating is tiring and self-defeating. It takes discipline to turn away from a problem, but you can convince yourself to do what you can with an issue and then rest while you await the next development. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my practice is that all my work won’t be finished in one day. Just like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, I’ll think about it tomorrow.

Get good at triage. Prioritize the multiple projects on your agenda. Focusing on the task at hand can get you working one step at a time instead of freezing at the thought of what the entire project year means. Learning to bring the focusing and mindfulness found in meditation practices into your daily work life will ease mental strain and help lessen stress levels by creating actual enjoyment of dealing with each bite-size piece of your workload as it comes. Practice your self-talk and convince yourself that you can enjoy every task at hand.

It is prudent to recognize that even very stable people may need to seek professional help from time to time. In our business lives we readily accept the input of trained advisors who can help us get past the details of the trees to see the whole forest, but admitting that we need help finding peace of mind can be harder. It’s not a moral failing to get a good evaluation from a cognitive behavioral therapist, and it can be an important and necessary step.

I’m sure that many of you will agree that it’s a marvel that our businesses do keep going. Those of us in dance are truly married to the profession, for better or worse. Let’s all look forward to our fiftieth anniversaries.

I have faith in you.