Tips for balancing the physical and emotional toll of clinical practice
By Sarah Clark, RDH, IPDH, CSMC
It is no secret that dental hygienists are very proud and resilient individuals. We conduct ourselves with the utmost professionalism and confidence, even in the many stressful situations that may cause us to imagine a very different response. While we would never purposefully be unprofessional, it is true that our kill-them-with-kindness façade is typically used to placate the source of these stressors. In the end, we are rewarding the stressor and causing ourselves to compartmentalize the negative emotions, all while maintaining our professional and confident stature without skipping a beat.
The “Big B”
We have all experienced days that bring us to our breaking point. We are tired, broken, and have nothing left to give. Our tank is empty. Working in a profession where we are forced to give 100% of ourselves, all of our emotional and physical energy, every minute of every day, and then compartmentalize our emotions, we will always be at risk for the “Big B.” Just as the “Big C” is used to discuss cancer without ever saying the word that so many are ashamed or afraid to speak, the “Big B” can be used the same way to describe burnout. In our profession, it seems shameful to admit being burned out, causing us to force those feelings away and pretend that we always love our jobs and are happy 100% of the time.
Cycle of the physical-emotional toll
Some of us are easily able to cope with stress and maintain a fair work-life balance, while others struggle silently, trapped in the vicious cycle of the physical-emotional toll. The physical-emotional toll manifests when we refuse to admit our true state of emotion and the wear and tear it can take, and refuse to take action. When our emotional well-being is compromised, it will soon begin to show physically through exhaustion, irritability, and even through musculoskeletal complications due to muscle tension. The cycle works like this: chronic emotional instability causes physical stressors. Physical stressors cause more emotional instability. The cycle must be stopped, and the first step is to ask ourselves, have we fallen out of love with dentistry? Most likely no! We still love dentistry; it is our physical-emotional imbalance that has caused us to fall out of love with our current situation. We can be unhappy in our job but still love our profession.
When our emotions are at rock bottom, it can be easy to look at our profession and want to say “It’s not you, dentistry, it’s me,” as we prepare ourselves for the seemingly inevitable career breakup. However, employing some simple stress management and mindfulness techniques can restore physical-emotional balance and reignite career passion, proving, “it’s not me, it is you.” Here are five methods to combat the physical-emotional toll.
Mindfulness is defined as “a technique in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them.”1 Mindfulness has been scientifically proven to manage stress and reduce chronic pain.2 An easy way to start training your brain to practice mindfulness is to use mindful meditation techniques. For instance, next time you eat a meal, take the time to focus on each aspect of it. What does it taste like? What is the texture? What flavors are you experiencing? Rather than labeling it with like or dislike, simply focus on the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that the meal gives you, and do not judge your true feelings toward it. By practicing this, soon you will be able to apply it to the clinical setting.
When our emotions are at rock bottom, it can be easy to look at our profession and want to say “It’s not you, dentistry, it’s me,” as we prepare ourselves for the seemingly inevitable career breakup.
While in the clinical setting, apply this method by focusing your undivided attention on the situation at hand, whether that be your patient, coworker, or employer. Be aware of the emotions that you are experiencing and the emotions of the other person. Identify the emotions but do not judge or act on them. This method teaches us to experience and acknowledge the emotion without becoming it. It will take some practice, but once mindfulness is employed, the burden of the physical-emotional toll will be more effectively managed.
Raise your vibration
A quick and simple technique that can be used when needed to balance your physical-emotional state is to raise your vibration. This method is great for those who can physically “feel” emotion from others, like when we say we can “cut the tension with a knife.” Through the placebo response, we use this method to trick our brains into happiness, allowing us to emit a positive vibe and feel the physical and emotional benefits of having a positive vibe.
To do this, it is best to start by practicing in a quiet place, and eventually work your way into using this during the busyness of a normal working environment. First, think of something that makes you the happiest or most excited. Is it your dog? Your spouse? An upcoming vacation? Hold that thought with your eyes closed, taking slow and deep breaths. Can you feel your vibration rising? That excitement and happiness should start to build inside of you. Use this new energy for the rest of your day. After all, we attract the energies that we emit!
Create a cue word
Similar to the method of raising your vibration, a cue word is another placebo for your brain. For this method, you will train your brain to create a positive cue word that can be used to manifest positive feelings. To practice, while relaxing, repeat a word with a positive association. The word could be an emotion like “happy” or “love” or it could be a more personal word that you associate with positivity. Repeat this exercise daily for a week or two. Then, when you are experiencing an emotional low, say the word out loud and feel the positivity come flooding back to you.3
This technique is best used for an acute onset of an extremely stressful situation that creates emotional tunnel vision. Emotional tunnel vision is when a stress-related emotion, such as fear, anger, or sadness, takes over, and all other thoughts, feelings, and surroundings melt away, leaving you to obsess over the negative emotion.
Once you are able to recognize that you are experiencing emotional tunnel vision, take a deep breath. Next, break your focus and look straight ahead. Focus on the first object you see at a distance that is outside of your personal space. Identify that object and acknowledge its presence here and now. Then, look to your immediate right, almost over your shoulder and do the same, and finally repeat over the left shoulder. While at each position, take a deep breath and think about your surroundings that are not within immediate reach. Grounding yourself back to your surroundings is a fantastic way to break your mind from the negative emotion and return to the here and now. Break that tunnel vision and move on.
Change your mindset
Sometimes it becomes all too easy to wallow in the lows of our physical-emotional imbalance. Of course, it is healthy to take a moment to acknowledge our less than ideal situation, but once we have had a chance to identify and own that emotion, it is time to change our mindset. Much of the time, we have absolutely no control over the situations causing our emotional distress. When we have no control to change it, we must accept it and be done with it.
Start focusing on the positives! For every source of your negative emotion, remind yourself of five positives in your life, no matter how seemingly small they might be. An example of five positives would be your home, your spouse, your pets, your health, or even the ice cream you were able to enjoy yesterday afternoon. Once your brain has shifted toward the attitude of being grateful for the many wonderful aspects of your life, the sources of negative emotions will begin to seem much more trivial in comparison.
Self-care is extremely important. We promote it daily for our patients, yet seem to struggle when it comes to caring for ourselves. We must remember that we cannot pour from an empty cup. In order to help others, we must be physically, mentally, and emotionally balanced. Once we learn that it is OK to experience and admit burnout (and that it is OK to take the time to care for ourselves), it is then that we will open ourselves up to much happier and healthier careers and lives.
Sarah Clark, RDH, IPDH, CSMC, is a dental hygienist from Maine who also holds independent practice dental hygiene authority. In addition to working full-time in private practice, Sarah is vice president of her local Maine Dental Hygiene Association and runs her blog Mindful Hygienist (mindfulhygienist.com). Recently, Sarah gained a certificate making her a certified stress management coach. She can be reached at [email protected].
1. Mindfulness. Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mindfulness. Accessed August 31, 2017.
2. Siegel RD, Allison SM. Positive Psychology: Harnessing the Power of Happiness, Mindfulness, and Inner Strength [Abstract]. Harvard Medical School website. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/positive-psychology-harnessing-the-power-of-happiness-mindfulness-and-inner-strength. Published 2016. Retrieved August 31, 2017.
3. Adamson E. The Everything Stress Management Book: Practical Ways to Relax, Be Healthy, and Maintain Your Sanity. Cincinnati, Ohio; F+W Media: 2010.