My story of dealing with stress as a dentist
Updated: Aug 4
Here is my story of dealing with stress as a dentist. I came from a family of dentistry, and becoming a dentist I quickly realised that I had the advantage of having "dentistry in my bones". But I also just as quickly realised that what I didn't have were the skills and capacities to deal with the amount of stress and overwhelm that the responsibilities and the nature of being a dentist brought along with it. Ouch. Quite literally.
The COVID-19 crisis is still with us, and who knows for how long it will be. And to me developing new ways of being and dealing with this amount of uncertainty and stress is more important than ever before. Dealing with stress can take many shapes and forms, and here is my story that brought me to where I am today, successfully helping dentists dealing with their version of stress and uncertainty.
My absolute low point, a miserable afternoon several years ago; I was lying at the top of the stairs at home, crying, exhausted after another day at work seeing patients at less than half my usual capacity in excruciating lower back pain. I had hit rock bottom, and I was worried I would never be able to work fully again as a dentist with the way my lower back and legs had seized up over the past few months. The pain was only getting worse.
In hindsight it had been a chain of events that led me to that absolute low point in my life and my career as a dentist. All I desperately wanted was to feel “normal” again, whatever simple pleasures that involved (aka simply sitting in a chair or being able to drive a car!).
One thing that was clear to me though. The main reason I was in this mess could be summed up into one word: Stress.
When becoming a dentist I quickly realised I was at an advantage having been around teeth my entire life. My dad was a periodontist, and I started working chair side aspirating for him during perio surgery at the age of 13 (clearly before the era of strict regulations). My older sister was also a dentist, and she warmly recommended the profession too, yet I was wholly unprepared for the amount of stress and responsibility that came with being a dentist and I had little idea how to deal with it. And as we all do – I did my best to cope with the stress with the resources I had available to me at the time.
As part of this strategy to minimise my stress at work, I took up yoga with a passion as I had heard it was good for stress relief, and whilst it initially helped me a great deal, what started happening over time was that the muscles and ligaments in my lower back and pelvis were getting over-stretched and I started getting spasms and eventually entire muscle groups seized up.
I ended up immobile as the muscles in that entire area of my body went into a freeze response, and as I mentioned above, it all went rapidly downhill from there.
So, back to the moment when I was lying at the top of the stairs at home crying in utter despair, I made a resolution. I decided then and there, I WILL find a solution to this pain. I WILL find the most effective and powerful ways of dealing with stress as a dentist going forward, and without compromising my body and nervous system as I do so.
And so I did.
I took a step back and systematically looked at what was actually going on here.
And I learned many things that I consistently started putting into practice:
I learned that one of the key area I struggled in when it came to dealing with stress as a dentist was actually much more to do with how I managed systems and structures within the job (or rather how I wasn’t managing these domains). For instance:
Creating systems that are informing me of how things are going with patients and treatments
Implementing structures for work flow and simple lists and ways to work that helps keep me on track and feeling in control.
For me, focusing on this area of implementing systems and structures revolutionised my practice as a dentist.
I also worked with an amazingly skilled Somatic Experiencing Practitioner® who helped me first of all gradually release the physical and emotional traumas from my body from the actual yoga injuries. She then helped me process the underlying stress response itself in my body and nervous system that was related to how I experienced stress as a dentist, all done through talking.
What I also discovered was another manifestation how my core belief of “I’m not enough” was rippling into me not feeling good enough as a dentist. This then created a way of being where I was always going above and beyond with each patient, which of course was exhausting, stressful and not a very fulfilling way to practice dentistry.
I took an Integral Approach to healing my body, mainly using the Four Quadrants:
I got serious about realigning my body and my posture, building strength through weight training, understanding anatomy. Dentistry and good posture are usually not synonymous.
I started managing and being more intelligently informed by my emotions rather than letting them run me, and reshaping my core limiting belief into constructive and self-affirming statements; as simple as “I’m enough. I bring value”.
I looked into leveraging my relationships for support and to see how my communication across all areas of my life – from patients, work relationships, close relationships could be improved to support more efficiency and less stress.
I got very curious about implementing structures and systems to support my practice as a dentist.
And lo and behold, over time the pain eased off, my stress response went down, and I started fully enjoying being a dentist for the first time in my career.
I earned more money that year than I ever had previously, I felt more confident and I actually enjoyed going to work seeing patients every day. It felt amazing, and to this day I feel truly grateful for the journey my resolution to tackle my stress took me on as it taught me so much about myself and about how to live and practice as a dentist and a human being in a more resourceful way.
I believe that part of the reason for being here as a human being is to grow and evolve and to learn from what life throws at us, and to me waking up to and seeing "Stress in Dentistry" as a teacher that taught me so much was a humbling and ultimately a hugely rewarding experience.
My experiences of hitting rock bottom and unpacking what it took to heal and thrive inspired me to study to become a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner® and also to gear my certification as an Integral Coach™ towards supporting dentists in stress take charge and thrive in the midst of the chaos that the job and life can bring.
Today I am living more or less pain free, successfully helping dentists thrive in their lives and careers. What I will not say is that my life is always stress free as we all know that with COVID-19 and the unpredictable and high paced world we live in, life will continue to challenge us with unprecedented situations to deal with.
My question is instead: How fast can you bounce back when life throws something unexpected at you? How resilient is your nervous system to deal with the ongoing challenges of stress that being a dentist in today’s world entails?
This is really my passion and my mission: To support dentists live happy, thriving and resilient lives in today’s unpredictable world.
If you would like to expand your approach to dealing with stress now, please feel free to contact me for a chat to see how I can help you! I look forward to hearing from you.