Depression Survival Tactics For Dancers
Depression sucks. I think we can all agree on that. Internalized ableism is GARBAGE, because it sucks us in to this inhumane notion that feels something like “we-don’t-have-it-as-bad-as-others-do-so-we-should-get-off-our-asses-and-get-going-even-if-we-feel-like-we’re-gonna-drown”.
Depression sucks even more when you’re a dancer/performer, I find. Make no mistake, it’s horrible for all of us, but when you’re a dancer, you’re saddled with the extra expectation that you’re superhuman, that your passion can/will outweigh all things (even mental illness), that dance will heal you, that a little exercise will solve your problem. Not quite the case.
There’s a difference between pushing yourself out of passion and pushing yourself out of shame. But the passion you have for your art form and the shame you feel because of depression often form a complicated knot in your stomach - and together shout “Other people have it worse than you. Suck it up and deal”. You know how I feel about this. The truth is, some days you just can’t.
This has been the most challenging month of my life, for reasons I won’t go into here. My depression has caught up with me and now I’m paying for it. My agoraphobia is back with a vengeance, my mood is really low, and I’m struggling to eat and sleep. So how the hell am I supposed to make it to classes and auditions when I can’t even brush my teeth or feed myself?
So when depression strikes and you can’t get out of bed, much less make it to class or to that audition on your calendar, what do you do? What do you do when depression keeps you from your dreams?
You engage Survival Mode.
The critical first step for Dancer Depression Survival Mode is to accept that your depression is momentarily kicking your ass. This isn’t forever, but it is right now. Dancers are bad at this. We tend to be the kickers, not the kicked. Accepting the feeling doesn’t mean that you’re giving in to your depression - it is, rather, the first step towards managing is. Our good friend Mr. Rogers used to say this about feelings: “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable”
So go ahead and mention it. Say it quietly to yourself, or to a trusted friend, or even to your dog or cat:
“Fam, depression is really kicking my ass today.”
There it is. You’ve mentioned it. Now you can manage it.
Depression Survival Mode for Dancers
When my depression gets really bad, I struggle with basic things that many other depressed folks struggle with, like feeding myself, sleeping, and getting outside, but I also struggle with dancer/performer specific things like not stretching, missing classes or auditions, etc. First things first, though:
I try to stay ahead of myself by always having certain foods in the house that I can prepare ahead of time and have if/when my depression gets bad. I try to keep it as nutritious as possible. Depression either zaps my appetite or turns me into a ravenous animal, so either way, I need to have food on hand that doesn’t require much preparing. When my mood and energy are low, all I can usually be bothered to do is get something out of the cabinet or the fridge.
These snacks are also, of course, super regular snacks that you can eat when you’re not depressed - I included them here because they’re easy. If you can only get up once, fill your water bottle and keep it nearby.
Getting a little rest can help. Even if you just lay in your bed with the lights low and your phone elsewhere, you’ll rebalance yourself a little bit by being rested.
Stretch and Strategize
First, let me say: if you can’t get out of bed, that’s fine. There’s no shame there. Even dancers get hit with the worst of depression, which can impair every function, including getting out of bed. Come back to this part later. If you can get out of bed and you want to stretch a little, go for easy things.
Roll out your hips, shoulders, buttocks and quads. We dancers tend to hold our tension there and it becomes an issue when we are ready to get back to the studio.
Point and flex your feet with your back straight up against a wall, just like you did in your very first Tiny Tot ballet class many moons ago.
If you can get out of bed, try easy stretches like long, slow roll-down into downward dog, cobra, and child’s pose. If you click here, you can follow the amazing Jessamyn Stanley doing a sun salutation (called Surya Namaskar).
Do your normal, before class warm up - if you can. Do what you’d normally do to get ready for class - crunches, planks, releves, leg swings, what have you, just to get yourself moving. Then you can go back to sitting if you want. Or, you may feel a little better and want to do some barre at home, or bosu ball exercises, even. Again, this is all dependent on how you’re feeling. Check in with yourself, see if you’re still feeling really low. If you are, sit down and find something quiet/calming/affirming to do.
If you can manage to do a barre at home, try something short and sweet: plies, tendus, degages, fondus, leg swings, frappes, etc. Keep everything low (45degrees) and slow and don’t put pressure on yourself. Just move.
Find a quiet activity away from social media
As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes I need to stay away from Instagram when my depression is really bad. When I’m in a depressive spiral, watching my friends dance only makes me feel like more of a failure. Scrolling through the ocean of dance videos on my feed makes me anxious and insecure - “I should be there in the studio, I should’ve just sucked it up and gone to class, I’m so lazy…”
Not helpful, not even a tiny bit.
Also, call me weird, but when my depression is flaring, I don’t like to watch dance, musicals, or dance documentaries. Sometimes I just need to take a mental break from dance. Some of you might be the opposite way, which is cool.
Sometimes, all you can manage is to watch something - my go-to depression shows are
Great British Bake Off
certain episodes of Doctor Who
or literally any episode of my all-time favorite comedy, Parks and Recreation.
If I need to cry or feel sad, I’ll revisit my favorite dramas
Call The Midwife,
This Is Us
If I just need to think, I’ll go back to the best crime procedurals ever, Law and Order: SVU and Bones. I try not to watch anything new when I’m depressed because I know I won’t remember. It’s hard to pay attention when you feel like the walls are caving in around you.
If I’m feeling up to doing *something* besides watching television, I try to engage my brain in doing something other than feeling like garbage.
Crossword puzzles. I’m a nerd and will do crossword puzzles all day if you leave me to my own devices. My favorites are this series by David Levinson Wilk. These are best if you are truly a nerd, too - like…understand Latin and have encyclopedia-level knowledge about random things nerd.
Knitting. I am not a great knitter, but it keeps my hands busy, is quiet, and results in…something…at the end.
Jigsaw puzzles. I…love puzzles. Zero shame. Usually the larger puzzles take me several weeks if I’m doing them by myself, so sometimes if my depression is bad, I’ll sit and do a puzzle to calm my mind.
Read. My love affair with books should be public knowledge at this point, but I really, really, really, really love books. A LOT. I tend towards dramatic fiction and non-fiction, so my recommendations aren’t necessarily great if you’re depressed, but I urge you to check out Goodreads and browse to find what you might like.
Draw or Hand-Letter. I’m awful at it, but using Adobe Sketch on my iPad is a good way to pass the time when I’m feeling badly.
Take a short walk. If you can get out of bed and feel up to it, try taking a short walk around your block. Nothing fancy, just take a walk. Check out what’s outside, make sure the world is still there, and then come back inside.
Hopefully after some of these things, you’re feeling better and starting to come out of your depressive episode.
Strategize about your next move once you’re feeling better - set some goals for classes and auditions that feel manageable to you.
As performers, we beat ourselves up extra when we’re dealing with a depressive episode. Because our careers are so driven by our own work (getting ourselves seen at auditions, etc.), a day spent at home nursing your mental illness feels silly or illegitimate. Don’t give in to that.
Mental illness is just as legitimate (and can be just as debilitating) as physical illness.
I like to plan ahead and give myself something to look forward to once I feel better. It gives me an opportunity to push myself in a setting of my own design, on my own terms, in my own time. I’m able to say to myself “Yes, I feel badly today, but tomorrow I am going to go take class” or “I’m going to try and feel better in time for this audition next Thursday”.
Low impact things you can do for your performance career during a depressive episode:
Read over your audition music, or just listen to it
Package up your headshot and resumes for drop offs
Find one audition to put on your calendar
Re-read a favorite play or monologue
What’s important to remember here is that depression is an illness, and just like any other illness you will have good days and bad days. Some days your depression will be so quiet you’ll forget it’s there…and some days it’ll be so loud it’s all you hear. The key here, as with most things, is to be gentle and forgiving with yourself.