Understanding Post Performance Letdown

            “Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.”   ― Dorothy M. Neddermeyer

          Last week’s post, Understanding Performance Anxiety, discussed the body’s physiological reaction to performance stress that results in feeling of anxiety before the performance begins.  This week’s post will address the physiological changes that occur after the performance is over that often result in feelings of sadness or depression known as post performance letdown.
            Dancers spend months training and rehearsing for performances, and while they are in the throes of it, it seems like the rehearsals will never end, but they do.  Suddenly dancers’ bodies get a break, tired and achy muscles get to rest, schedules return to normal, and dancers can return to a life outside of the dark, windowless theaters.  Sighs of relief are audible but are often followed by something called the post performance letdown.  Dancers become acutely aware of lingering aches throughout the body, they have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, and are often overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and/or symptoms of depression.

            Dancers spend months creating a work of art that disappears as soon as the costumes are packed, dance floors are removed, and props are struck from the theater stage.  No other production will ever be exactly the same.  Dance is ephemeral, and psychologically, dancers may be mourning this loss.  Their goals have been achieved, the roles are no longer theirs, and they no longer get to hear the positive feedback from applauding audiences.

            It will help dancers to know and understand that there are definite physiological reasons for these feelings as well.  During intense bouts of physical exercise, the body releases high levels of neurotransmitters, proteins, stress hormones, and endorphins.

            The increased amount of neurotransmitters helps carry messages quickly and efficiently from the muscles to the brain and back to the muscles along nerve pathways.  The neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin increase heart rate and blood flow and have also been connected to improved moods.  The neurotransmitter dopamine also acts as an analgesic, relieving or dulling pain.

            The proteins that are released stimulate growth in the nervous system to help increase the body’s response time as well as provide for cell growth to keep the overworked muscles strong and functioning.

            Adrenaline and cortisol are stress hormones secreted by the adrenal glands.  Adrenaline increases the rate of heart contractions, which results in quicker blood flow throughout the body.  It also relaxes the bronchioles, or breathing tubes found in the lungs, to allow oxygen to pass into the blood and carbon dioxide to leave the blood faster.
Adrenaline also signals the pancreas to produce more insulin.  Insulin is what allows the muscles to use the glucose that is in the blood to create energy.   

            When cortisol is released, it signals the liver to start converting stored energy into glucose for the body to use.  Cortisol also diverts energy away from activities that are considered low priority during physical activity and redirects that energy toward the muscles.  Although adrenaline levels rise and fall quickly, cortisol levels rise gradually and return to normal very slowly.

            All of these physiological changes move the body into a hyper vigilant, excited, and blissful state.  When the production comes to an end, and the body’s state begins to return to normal, everything begins to slow down.  The heart rate decreases, blood flow slows, respiration returns to normal, and nerve and cell growth return to a normal pace.  The conversion of glucose to energy slows down, dopamine levels decrease so any muscle soreness or pain is no longer dulled, and the blissful state created by the released endorphins also disappears.  Since cortisol levels rise and fall slowly, elevated levels stay in the body for a longer period of time, and high levels of cortisol have been linked to symptoms of depression.

            It is helpful for dancers to know that post performance letdown is a very real phenomenon.  The feelings of sadness or depression that dancers may experience after a performance are simply a result of the physiological changes that occur as the body moves from a heightened, alert state to a normal one.  This bit of knowledge and simply understanding what is causing these extreme feelings can help dancers cope with post performance letdown.

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