"Warning: this post discusses anxiety and OCD. If those are challenging topics for you, please consider skipping to another post.”
Note - this submission has been edited in collaboration with our Clinical Advisory Board.
During college, I sustained a traumatic injury during a rehearsal for a dance department performance. Thankfully, my school had incredible and extensive physical therapy available to the dance students, and with this support I was able to be back in rehearsal and fully dancing fairly quickly.
Although I was technically fully healed, something felt off. I remember waking up on the day I was cleared to dance full of dread. I felt physically nauseous and had trouble breathing. I explained this to the physical therapist, and she told me that it was very typical to experience anxiety as a post-traumatic symptom. And while the day went fine, I remember a feeling of growing fear that would not be calmed.
I suddenly found that dancing scared me. I felt this fear in a deep, guttural place that was not rational. Over the course of the next few months, anytime I would experience a slight twinge of pain or a small pulling of a muscle, I would be filled with a dread that I could not let go of. I felt incredibly fragile, and it was disorienting to suddenly feel that dance, the thing that always made me feel full and most alive, suddenly had become a source of fear.
And a few months later, when a minor collision ignited a fear that I had re-triggered the initial injury, I felt a new level of panic. I found myself unable to breathe, unable to focus on anything else; it truly felt like I was dying. And all of this was made worse by the understanding deep inside of me that I was fine. That this reaction felt out of my control and completely irrational.
I decided that I needed to start therapy. Mental health care can look different for every individual, and psychotherapy may not be the best fit for everyone, but I wanted to give it a try. I’m very mindful of all the elements that fell into place for me to get access to this treatment: I grew up in an environment where mental health care was encouraged and normalized, and I am aware that far too many folks who seek mental health care face barriers that prevent them from doing so, be it financial, social, logistical, etc. I found a new therapist, recommended by a family friend, and cautiously started sessions. I began to slowly explain what I was feeling: The details of my injury, my fears about my body’s fragility, my unexplainable sense of dread and panic. As I began to get to know my therapist, the conversation began to become broader in scope. I went in looking for answers to what felt like a pressing problem: Why couldn’t I get over my fear of injury, and why was the fear so all-consuming? Slowly my therapist pushed me to increase the scope of that question.
What are the underlying fears that inform this panic? What does it mean to feel fragile or vulnerable? How do I relate to my body and its precariousness, and how does this relationship impact how I view my career, my relationships, my emotions? I began to see a larger picture: I have an anxiety disorder and multiple obsessive compulsive tendencies. These things had always been true, but it took a heightened experience of their grip on me for me to understand what that meant and how that functioned within my life.
While it was exciting to begin to have a name for what was happening inside my head, that did not mean my anxiety or my obsessive compulsive behaviors stopped. In fact, they got worse. I began to develop many small safety routines, that I knew were irrational: things I would not allow myself to do, ways in which I would hold and protect my body, things I would avoid letting others do to my body. I felt ashamed of these impulsive behaviors, but I also could not stop myself from behaving this way. I learned from my therapist that this is typical obsessive compulsive behavior: fixating on small tasks and behaviors that you feel you need to complete in order to be safe.
I was trying so hard to be rational and not need these behaviors, but I finally I had to decide for myself that I would rather allow myself to be irrational and do what I need to do to feel safe than hold myself to a standard of “rationality” that left me afraid and unable to participate in my own life. I think being in therapy allowed me to make this choice. Knowing that I was actively engaged in the long term work of getting at the root of the anxiety, and therefore that these irrational acts of safety would hopefully not be permanently necessary.
And I have to say that three years later this strategy has paid off. But it took a lot of patience. There were so many moments when I felt that this anxiety meant I could not possibly be a professional dancer. I spent a lot of time and energy hiding my anxious and obsessive coping mechanisms from everyone around me. I thought that if people really knew what I needed to do to feel safe, they would think I was too weak to be a dancer. I thought I was too weak to be a dancer. I felt like I was an imposter just waiting to be found out. In those moments, I tried to remember that while I would always be someone who struggles with anxiety, these specific coping mechanisms were not permanent. I had to trust myself and trust the work.
Slowly, over years of work, I have been able to let go of many of the obsessive tendencies I had developed to make myself feel safe. I have grown so much in how I respond to injury and the vulnerability of my body; it is work, but I find I am able to feel grounded and rational throughout the rough spots, and I have the tools to feel safe and to take care of myself. I know myself and I know when I need to take extra care and when I can enjoy feeling a bit more freedom to breathe. Feeling this change and this progress within my own body and mind is the most powerful and rewarding feeling I have ever experienced.
And while it was disorienting and destabilizing to have dance be the thing that scared me most, on this side of that growth I am struck by the realization that all the work I put into healing and fighting through that fear just shows just how important and sustaining dance is to me. I feel grateful to have something so worth fighting for.
How has this impacted your life? How about your career?
While at first my experience of my anxiety disorder made me feel incredibly weak, my process through discovery and healing has made me a stronger person. I feel more grounded and solid than I ever have in my life, and I feel that I have newfound insight into how to take care of myself and what I need to feel healthy and productive.
How have you managed it/are you managing it?
Therapy has been one of the biggest assets to the process. Journaling has also been key. I am also incredibly grateful for the friendships and family members that have been there to hold me up, and to celebrate the wins.
What would you tell your past self considering the experiences you’ve gained?
Be patient. Where you are now is temporary. Spend less time wishing the situation were different and more time doing the work.
Have you always been open about speaking out on this issue? What has kept you from opening up about it in the past?
Definitely not. I think for a long time I believed that I could not take care of my mental health and pursue being a “professional dancer” at the same time. I feel that in the dance community, especially in the conservatory world of higher education, there is not a lot of room for young dancers to give voice to how they’re feeling and what they need in a given class or rehearsal. This is something I think about in a larger context than just mental health: how can we build more mechanisms of consent and feedback into dance practice, so everyone feels they have a voice to share what they are comfortable with, what they’re not comfortable doing, how they’re feeling, etc.
Why do you think there is still stigma surrounding the issue in our society/dance community?
I think the dance community, especially when you are young and training and learning, forces you to place value on all the things you can do. There’s a pressure to be able to “do it all,” to always say yes. Where is the space for saying no?
What have you learned throughout your journey?
I can handle more than I think I can, but also, saying no is a valid choice.