Right, lovely dental folks – I’d like you to listen, please…

You know the scenario – it’s 4.45pm on a Friday afternoon and a patient rings with severe toothache; they’ve had it for several weeks, and they are ringing now because they are “not sure they can make it through the weekend”.  A check on their records reveals two failed appointments for a filling which needed doing over a year ago and they have never been back in touch since then.  Oh, and you also told them they needed to see the hygienist for regular appointments too, and they’ve never been.

Prevention.  You teach it to your patients.  All the time.  Often repeatedly.  At the end of the day, it’s up to the patient whether or not they choose to take responsibility for their own dental health – as their dentist you know there is only so much you can do…

As a psychotherapist, this is what I see when I look at the dental profession:  so many surveys measuring the catastrophic levels of stress in the profession; so many posts on social media complaining about mental distress; (and yes, it’s bad – in many cases it’s truly heartbreaking); and yet so many dentists are clearly not taking any responsibility for their own mental health. 

Clients will often come to me because they have reached the psychological equivalent of the severe toothache patient described above; so we have to begin by firefighting the situation they have found themselves in… and just like that toothache, it’s often been coming on for a very long time.  Sometimes for years…  and they’ve ignored the signs.   

But here’s the thing… Even if you are feeling absolutely fine right now, how many of you are actually taking an active responsibility in making sure you stay that way by maintaining your own mental health?  (I know many of you are, which is fantastic – I also know that many, many more are not…)  Are you even aware that there are very definite measures you can put in place to help prevent future burnout and chronic stress?  Are you just like the patient with toothache who is aware that oral hygiene is probably something they should have been doing, and they are still not doing it?  Are you willing to wait until you experience symptoms of chronic stress, mental breakdown and burnout before you decide to take some action?

Here are some suggestions, and my invitation to you is that you look into at least one of these right now (yes, even though you are feeling fine at the moment):

  • Learn how to talk, and listen.  Find a trusted, non-judgemental colleague with whom you can share your thoughts on a regular monthly basis; setting aside a specific hour to do so.  Make sure you also listen non-judgementally to your colleague’s experiences too.  Neither of you should try to “fix” things for the other – just play an active listening role for each other and hold the space for each to explore their own thoughts and make sense of their experiences.  If you’d rather not do this with a colleague, find a good coach instead.
  • Read this book;  it’s a good read and it will change your entire mindset about stress:  “The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it)”, by Kelly McGonigal.
  • Begin a personal development journal, exploring your own thoughts and feelings on a daily basis.
  • Learn about the benefits of Mindful Awareness (not quite the same thing as many of the dissociative mindfulness techniques that are so popular right now).
  • Take up a meditation (such as gratitude meditation) or self-hypnosis daily practice.
  • Start some form of regular physical activity – dance, yoga, pilates, swimming, walking – even just 15 minutes a day will make a difference.
  • Make a list of your values in different contexts of life, like work, relationships, health etc.  Explore each of these values in turn – why is it important to you?  This helps you to connect with your feelings of meaning and purpose.

If you are feeling fine because you are already doing at least one of those, then that’s marvellous – I salute you.

My mother always used to tell us that, “Something always happens when you don’t do as you’re told…” I’ve no doubt that’s what you think when the irregularly attending, poor oral hygiene patient turns up yet again with an abscess.  But remember the wise words of Virginia Satir, “Life isn’t the way it’s meant to be – it is the way it is.  It’s how we cope with it that makes the difference.”

That difference has to start with you.  And if you need some help to rediscover your own inner resources, please just ask. 

As a psychotherapeutic coach I offer regular, ongoing, preventive, confidential support to dentists in the UK and abroad, as well as in-depth therapy when it’s needed; just as you do for your patients.  I also offer small group CPD courses specifically for dentists on how to change your relationship with stress.

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