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Ballet dancers suffer greater susceptibility to mental illness

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Dancers are more vulnerable to mental health issues than non-dancers, according to a study published by Psychology of Music. Ballet dancers in particular have high levels of psychological inflexibility because of the high physical demand of the sport, as well as the inherent body image issues and perfectionism associated with ballet.

The benefits of the art form—including a vigorous regime and the fostering of traits such as being a team player and being resilient—are evident. Dance activates the brain structures responsible for control, coordination, movement and spatial cognition. Yet, the risks are also apparent. There is little research that assesses how the rigorous study of dance affects the mental health of children and adolescents.

The study describes psychological inflexibility as “excessive involvement with the content of internal events,” which includes emotions, memories and thoughts. In other words, dancers may become too preoccupied with what is going on in their heads. This introspective way of thinking contributes to apprehension about failure and further results in dancers abstaining from demanding situations rather than accepting a challenge. This mode of thinking is connected to anxiety and depressive symptoms in adolescents.

There is a shortage of research on whether psychological flexibility and mindfulness can be applied to figure out the psychological functioning of dancers. The objective of the study was to assess and compare the mindfulness abilities and psychological inflexibility in Portuguese children who had dance and musical coaching with children and adolescents who did not receive any coaching outside of school.

Researchers collected their data from Portuguese music and ballet schools. The total sample consisted of 113 children and adolescents between 9 and 16 years old, with 35.4 percent being boys and 64.4 percent being girls.

The students were broken up into three groups: the musical training group for the musicians who practiced once a week, the ballet training group for dancers who practiced twice a week and the no-training group designated for the children and adolescents whose only exposure to these arts was in their public school classes.

Participants were then asked to fill out the Avoidance and Fusion Questionnaire for Youth, a self-review system that contains 17 items that evaluate cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance. Responses were graded on a five-point Likert scale, varying from zero, or not at all true, to four, or very true, with the total ranging from zero to 68 points.

Ballet leaves dancers more vulnerable to mental illness, with some dancers exhibiting unrealistic standards for themselves. Photo by: Agata Poniatowski

A higher tally revealed higher psychological inflexibility. The questionnaire included statements such as, “I push away thoughts I do not like,” “I stop myself from having feelings that I don’t like,” and “At school, I walk from class to class without noticing what I’m doing.” This type of text was paraphrased from the original questionnaire, so it would be easier for younger children to comprehend.

Means and standard deviations of the AFQ-Y scores were tallied for the three groups, followed by an ANOVA, or a compilation of statistical models, to see the differences between group means.

The results disclosed that there were no differences in mindfulness abilities between ballet students and those who were not ballet students, and that there was no correlation between mindfulness and ballet practice.

There were no imbalances found between girls and boys in psychological inflexibility and mindfulness skills. However, ballet students were more likely to agree with the statements from the questionnaire than musicians or the group that did not practice any of those art forms. The more months a ballet dancer trained, the higher amount toward which his or her psychological inflexibility trended.

Examiners emphasized that the attributes of ballet instruction explain the degree of psychological inflexibility in its students. Ballet is associated with discipline, perfectionistic outlooks and physical challenges. Events that create a loss of ranking and worth will trigger a dancer’s disengagement and alienation.

Ballet dancers exhibited unrealistic standards for themselves, bruising their self-confidence in the process. The solemn atmosphere and rivalries within the sport are linked to feelings of pressure to sustain a low body weight, as well as a higher prospect of an eating disorder. Ballet dancers were also more susceptible to bulimic behaviors later in life. Body image frustration and self-esteem issues were accountable for a dancer’s poor mindset.

The study confirmed that there is a link between experimental avoidance, or dismissing thoughts, and maladaptive perfectionism, or having unhealthy amounts of self-criticism. Researchers concluded that dance teachers should be conscious of this issue.

Trainers should guide the class using various cognitive and behavioral methods so students could handle their ambitions with a healthier approach. An additional suggestion from this investigation is that parents of ballet students should be mindful of their children’s active lifestyle. Parents should coax them to convey and embrace their emotions instead of repressing them.

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