If I had to bet, I’d say...
You’re a visionary.
Your ambition is fervent.
You can taste success on your tongue.
There’s nothing more important to you than your dream.
You’ll do anything necessary.
Motivation is in no short supply for accomplishing what matters.
You are unstoppable.
You are determined.
You are diligent.
You are driven.
What if these exact high-achieving qualities, the ones that make you a likely candidate for success, also made you susceptible to MENTAL HEALTH CONDITIONS like anxiety and depression?
The article brought me back to one of the most distinguishing lessons I came to understand after struggling with anxiety and depression throughout the end of high school and into my college career:
Health is much more than my physical fitness or the food I’m consuming.
Health is also about what I’m thinking and saying to myself.
For me, the word 'health' now embodies not only my physicality and nutrition, but my attitude on a day to day basis, the abundance of creativity I have, my energy levels, and the compassion I have for others. It encompasses my confidence and self-worth.
I truly feel my own wellness journey only began once I realized I had to address the way I was reacting to and coping with my emotions. My next workout or juice cleanse wasn’t going to thwart my, then, rampant anxiety and deep-seated feelings of not being enough.
HIGH-ACHIEVERS SLIP THROUGH THE CRACKS..
The article by Dance Magazine shares a poignant quote from Dr. Brian Goonan,
“…the same drive to succeed that makes so many ballet students great may also predispose them to depression.”
High-achievers are conditioned to believe that anxiety is a means to an end. They slip through the cracks and go undiagnosed simply because they don’t demonstrate the standard warning symptoms of many mental health conditions. Many high-achievers are also high-functioning performers, or athletes, and mask signs of struggle so it doesn't interfere on their road to success. They're not taught how to recognize these symptoms or that their state of mind is an integral component of their health they should be looking after.
With dancers or athletes, especially, our bodies are our instruments; it’s fair to assume we’re caring for our ‘health.’
From a young age dancers understand if we do not care for our ‘health’ (in the physical and nutritional sense of the term), then we will not achieve our dreams. We’re generally minding our nutrition, thinking about recovery, and getting plenty of daily physical-activity through classes and rehearsals.
What we are seldom taught, however, is how to deal with the micro-defeats of the everyday that slowly eat away at our resilience and sense of worth. Negative relationships with competition and criticism are driven in at an early age. We’re not taught at a young enough age how to cope with the rejection that doesn’t get easier to take; the constant comparison; or the idea of being easily replaceable.
These stressors are adversaries that physical conditioning or losing two pounds cannot help combat. Yet, these are generally the coping mechanisms dancers turn towards, if not turning towards substances to either alter their mood or appearance.
What the article in Dance magazine hits home at, is something Dr. Jim Bauman, a sports psychology consultant for USA Swimming, points out about his athletes,
"We spend all our time on biomechanics and not enough time on the 'software' - dealing with pressure and chaos. Instead of saying, 'Be tough,' we should be saying, 'I want you to be resilient, pliable, able to adapt.'
HOW DO WE COMBAT FEELINGS OF STRESS, OVERWHELM, DEPRESSION OR ANXIETY?
During my second year at NYU, I took a course called Complementary and Alternative Mental Health which completely shifted the course of my life.
It finally started to address the 'software.'
In addition to numerous other traditional medical systems and healing modalities, the course introduced me to the concept of mindfulness: awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It taught me about the concept of ego - that I, Claudia, was not my thoughts.
At 20 years old, this was mind-blowing knowledge I'd never before considered. Mindfulness helped me shift focus into the present moment. It helped me be less absorbed by the past or concerned with the future and instead, begin living my life in the now. It offered a way to feel like I was capable of handling the stressors in my life - like I had control.
If young dancers (students, athletes, people, etc.) knew that every discouraging thought they had about themselves — that the voice in their head — was not reality, that there were exercises and practices they could do to strengthen their outlook the same way they work to strengthen the tiny muscles of their feet or hips to prevent injury, they’d be invincible.
MINDFULNESS: THE GAME CHANGER
The concept of mindfulness allows us to practice being reflective rather than reactive.
Any given event is neither good nor bad, but merely how we respond to and label the event in the moment. It is our reactions to events in our lives that give rise to fear, anxiety, and stress; or on the flip side, gives us the ability to craft our own happiness despite adversity.
Any situation is merely how we perceive it.
In one of my favorite short, but enlightening books, Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss (shoutout to my BFF Sam for gifting this to me one Christmas) he says,
“We are the authors of every next moment. We are powerful beings, creating our futures with our thoughts and actions. We are the mechanism by which life is controlled, and we control the events in our life by our personal philosophy, which determines how we respond to those events.
If you believe that something that happens to you is bad, you will react to the events in a way that will cause you more unpleasantness, and the unpleasantness you experience then appears to confirm that what happened was truly unfortunate. However, it was your reaction to the event that caused the continuation of the unpleasantness. We are the ones who invest seemingly bad happenings with the power to seem bad at the time they occur and to continue to seem bad afterwards.”
I wanted to write a response to this article from Dance Magazine because, although I relate to it through the lens of a dancer, dancers are not the only high-achievers ambition gets the best of; who the stressors of their industry create emotions/stress that can drive us into dark places in pursuit of our dreams. Dance is not the only industry that should be addressing mental health as a key component of standard health.
With it being back-to-school season, it’s an apt time to remind ourselves that we can’t expect mental health conditions to manifest in a textbook manner when looking from the outside, and that with the right tools and knowledge each of us holds the power to find our way back to the light.
Below are four simple mindfulness tools/principles you can practice, whether you're just starting out with mindfulness or already zen af.
4 MINDFULNESS TOOLS TO SHIFT OUT OF ANXIETY AND NEGATIVITY:
1. BE THE WATCHER:
In this visualization you can begin to think about your thoughts like a carousel. You are observing your stream of consciousness from the outside looking in. From this vantage point, the cyclical nature of our minds becomes apparent. You are not your thoughts, and your thoughts are not the reality. If and when you notice you've boarded the carousel - by engaging in a thought - simply let it go and return to watching.
2. MINDFUL BREATHING:
Your breath is a ubiquitous tool you have access to wherever you go. Whether you’re intentionally sitting down to meditate, riding the subway, on a road trip, or in a stressful meeting, use your breath to bring yourself into a more mindful state wherever you are. When you notice the physical symptoms of stress or anxiety coming up, simply bring your attention to your inhales and exhales. Don't try to manufacture or alter the length of the breath, just observe it as it is. Let the inhales and exhales change organically as you begin to balance your para-sympathetic (flight or fight response) and your sympathetic (rest + digest state) nervous systems. Perhaps you also notice the way the breath affects the rise and fall of your chest or the way the breath feels flowing in and out through your nostrils.
3. REsistinG LABELs: nonjudgmental AWARENESS
The non-judgmental part in the definition of mindfulness is the bit which helps us shift out of old automatic patterning and begin to experience life more open-mindedly. Our minds' label any event, person or experience as 'good' or 'bad,' automatically. We put them into a column of this or that unconsciously. When we start to question our ideas of “good” or “bad” by trying to remain neutral to events, people, or experiences, we give ourselves the chance to consider new perspectives. Practice non judgment of thoughts and events to begin reframing your perspective. What you'll begin to notice when using this tool, is that we are often reactive and impulsive about the things we experience. By taking a beat and resisting the label, we leave room for possibility, and develop an attitude of openness and curiosity.
4. NARRATE YOUR SURROUNDINGS:
This is a straight-forward exercise that is great when we can't seem to disengage from rumination or compulsive negative thought patterns. There are certain situations that really get to us. If you can’t seem to think positively, practice articulating - either in your head or under your breath - everything you see around you. For example, brick wall, yellow lines, a telephone pole, dog with red collar, truck, stop sign… Begin to name the objects in your direct surroundings very matter-of-factly. This forces you into the present moment by describing your immediate now. Your attention shifts to where you are, rather than a past circumstance or imaginings about the future.
Have thoughts, experiences, stories or questions about 'health' including our mental wellbeing or mindfulness? Comment below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
SOURCES + ADDITIONAL READING: