The declining mental wellbeing of practice owners and dental professionals is an issue that is extremely close to my heart. It can be so easy to dismiss your wellbeing in favour of ticking more off your to-do list, but with the simple two-minute intervention in this blog, you really can have the best of both worlds.
This might sound idealistic, but the proof is in the pudding: I have battled with anxiety for over 20 years, and within three weeks of committing to this practice my anxiety had dissipated. This was an astounding result and one that I want for every practice owner struggling with the demands of their job.
Attitudes to mental health within dentistry – can you ask for help?
In 2021, the Dental Defence Union published findings that 68 per cent of UK dental professionals had reported increased levels of stress and anxiety since the Covid-19 pandemic, with 67 per cent feeling stressed and anxious on a weekly basis.
Although I’ve spent time in and around dental practices since I was an infant, I’d never heard anyone talk about mental health issues, despite the unsettling statistics detailed above. Many practice owners are from, or were raised by, generations that don’t see anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues as real illnesses.
Thankfully, in recent years we’ve seen an increase in mental health discussions in the media. Although there has been a real movement towards a more open-minded attitude, many dental professionals simply aren’t asking for help.
In fact, the British Dental Association reported that three-quarters of respondents to their survey said that they had gone to work despite not feeling mentally well enough. The association’s research on stress and burnout found that 43 per cent of dentists “could not cope with the stress of their job”, and 17.6 per cent had seriously considered taking their own life.
Key takeaways from a huge study conducted by the General Dental Council evidenced the anxiety, stress, and burnout faced by dentists, and pointed to potential links between these issues and practitioners being less clinically confident.
Clearly, this is a serious issue, and one that needs to be discussed more. Dental professionals have always been highly pressured and time-poor, and this was only made worse by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
So, how can we begin to change this?
The power of mindfulness
My own experience with mental health has led me on quite the journey to understanding the power of mindfulness and meditation.
I discovered meditation many years ago. For me, meditation is typically a 20-minute exercise. It’s very simple in theory – close your eyes, focus on the breath, and let all thoughts drift across your mind – but it can be a lot harder to carry out in reality.
Having just emphasised how busy and time-poor practice owners are, it would be unreasonable for me to suggest that you implement a 20-minute meditation into your daily routine. However, something that can be implemented into your daily routine without stealing valuable time from your schedule, is the practice of mental fitness.
Mental fitness is a version of mindfulness that helps you to remain calm and grounded in the present moment, in control of how you react to situations throughout your day. The best part is, it’s such a simple and subtle practice that no one will even notice you doing it.
What is mental fitness?
Mental fitness is a technique developed by Shirzad Chermine and is explored in depth in his book, Positive Intelligence. Using neuroscience and psychology, Chermine developed ‘The Science of Positive Intelligence’, which aims to help people remain calm, clear headed, stress-free and positive, even in the midst of handling work and life’s greatest challenges.
There are a huge number of benefits to using mental fitness techniques in a dental practice. Working in such a high-stress environment means that it’s more important than ever to have control over our mental states.
This technique allows you to work on your mental “muscles”, specifically the ones that target empathy – especially for yourself. It’s essentially like going to the gym but for your brain!
To do this, simply close your eyes, and steeple your fingers together, touching each fingertip to its opposite. Deliberately become acutely aware of every feeling, every bit of coolness or heat coming from your skin. Gradually move your awareness around your hand – you might even touch your forehead, your temple, your eyebrow.
This training is about grounding yourself in the present moment and staying connected to your body. When we are so busy managing other people, we can often forget about ourselves. By focusing on your breathing, forgetting everything on your to-do list, and touching points like your fingertips, forehead, and brow, you’re encouraging your body to associate being present, calm, and in control of itself with these gestures.
By doing this for a total of six minutes every day, you are reminding your brain that you are in control. It’s essentially retraining your mind so that next time you are in a stressful situation, you can subtly touch your fingers together or touch your brow, and in doing so immediately trigger your brain into the “mental fitness” state, bringing about a sense of calm.
Tapping into your unconscious mind
We all have intrusive, unhelpful thoughts that aren’t productive in the slightest and that hold us back. It’s important to understand that these negative thoughts aren’t real. We have many thousands of thoughts a day that are outside of our control, and a lot of them are hugely unhelpful.
Unfortunately, when we hear negative thoughts repeatedly throughout our days, we can begin to believe them. Practising mental fitness is a way of regaining control over our inner monologue and approaching life with more positivity.
When you approach life with positive intelligence, you look at everything through a creative lens rather than a negative one. Viewing problems in this way means that you’re thinking outside the box, and issues that seemed insurmountable suddenly transform into an opportunity and a gift to explore, overcome, and learn from.
Mental fitness is especially important for practice owners in the busy and high-stress environments that we inhabit because it allows us to deal with difficult situations, have more productive conversations, refrain from taking things personally, reassure anxieties, have better time management, and take a more level-headed, positive approach to problem solving.
It takes time to retrain your brain
It doesn’t happen straight away. With this practice you are reconditioning your mind, and when your mind has been operating in a certain way for many years – for example, immediately becoming stressed when faced with difficult conversations – you can’t expect to instantly snap out of it.
Don’t be surprised if you struggle with intrusive thoughts at first. They could sound like:
“I feel silly!”
“This is nonsense, it’s never going to work.”
“Did I lock the door this morning?”
“I need to remember to call that patient back.”
“This is a waste of time, I’ve got so much I need to be getting on with!”
I’d recommend thinking of it like the gym. You wouldn’t expect yourself to start lifting heavy weights straight away. You have to build yourself up, starting with a lighter weight and gradually getting heavier. In the same way, this habit requires you to be patient with yourself, kind to yourself, and to understand that, like anything, it takes practice to be able to quiet those thoughts and start to really feel the benefits.
The first thing you’ll notice is your ability to identify thoughts as genuine and productive or as unhelpful and negative – we can call these “saboteurs”. These are the thoughts that aren’t productive, aren’t positive, and aren’t kind, and we don’t need to pay attention to them. If you’d like to discover what your saboteurs are, complete the free assessment here.
Often it can feel like we have no choice, but the benefit of mental fitness is that it gives us the mental strength to take back control and step into the part of our brain that is empathetic, loving, and caring.
Every practice owner should dedicate time to mindfulness
Mindfulness is a very easy resource to tap into, and once you’ve learned these skills, they will stay with you for as long as you want them to.
I know first hand the stress that practice owners are under, and unfortunately I see time and time again that personal wellbeing is not prioritised. I understand this is most often because you simply don’t have the time, but just six minutes spread across your work day is not going to detract from your time, energy, or financial resources – quite the opposite, in fact.
The benefits of mindfulness extend beyond your professional life and into your personal life, too. Committing to this practice is going to make you more present, more relaxed, and more able to enjoy your downtime.
If you’d like more of an insight into the areas of your life that might be causing burnout, you can complete my free online report and receive a personalised scorecard just for you. This will help you to identify where improvements can be made to benefit your well-being by setting boundaries and prioritising time for self-care.
But this is just a small part of a big, ongoing conversation on my blog, because the wellbeing of practice owners and dental professionals is hugely important to me. To keep up to date with the latest posts full of advice and guidance like this one, please subscribe to my mailing list and join the conversation on LinkedIn.