Mindfulness in dentistry

With the never-ending workload of dentistry and stress levels rising, Helena Alder, dentist and Integral Master Coach says taking a step back and introducing mindfulness into your practice can have a positive effect on all areas of your life

Frantically juggling patients, treatment planning, keeping on schedule, managing staff. Worrying about ever-demanding patients with exceedingly high expectations, especially within orthodontic dentistry where patients expect a perfect smile or they want to compensate for low self-esteem with perfectly aligned teeth. And who knows you might have succumbed to this thought: ‘I might get sued’. Does any of this sound familiar to you? The pace of dentistry is relentless and one can easily get the feeling of surviving, not thriving, being caught on a hamster wheel, just getting through the day, not knowing how to get off. This can feel frustrating and exhausting, trust me, as a dentist I know.

What I came to discover was that there is in fact another way to be in our hectic clinical everyday life, a way where there is room for enjoyment and reconnecting with why you chose this profession in the first place.

If you haven’t already heard of it, I’d like to introduce you to mindfulness in dentistry. Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword. And for good reason. There is a large body of research out there showing how practising mindfulness has a profound impact in many areas; increases in positive moods and wellbeing, boost in immune function, reduced effects of depression, decreased cardiac mortality and more. It might sound too good to be true, but if you haven’t already tried mindfulness meditation, I can only strongly encourage you to dip your toe in.

What is mindfulness?

Briefly explained, mindfulness is a practical way to find more enjoyment and peace in the life you already have. This doesn’t mean you get complacent about the things in your day-to-day living that you might recognise aren’t working, but mindfulness allows you to approach your clinical or personal challenges with more inner calm, taking control and decisive action from a place of clarity and being present to what is actually going on – versus from reactivity and wishing your life was something else.

As a dentist, you are under so much pressure every day, and if you are still stressed or worried or anxious today, then chances are high that this is not going to change any time in the near future unless you change your approach. And mindfulness mediation in my experience offers exactly such a change in approach.

That familiar knot in your stomach

For instance, an orthodontic patient presenting as a difficult clinical case walks through the door looking for the perfect smile, and if you are anything like me, the mind starts racing with worries and possible less than favourable outcomes. That familiar knot starts churning in the stomach. Now what can you do from here? You have two options the way I see it. One is to follow the habitual road of letting your mind roam free which habitually tends to impact a downward spiral of anxiety and fear or plain worry, which then tends to exacerbate that knot in your stomach.

And as you sense this knot, of course your mind interprets this as danger and you spiral further out of control. Does any of this sound familiar to you? And the question is then of course how do you remedy this? My suggestion is to apply your other option; to practice mindfulness which in fact allows you to interrupt this sequence much sooner before it gets a strong hold of you.

‘My thoughts are just my thoughts’

With simple meditation exercises you learn to see that ‘my thoughts are just thoughts’, they are not ‘me’, they are not who I really am. They are the internal running commentary on yourself and your world. The same goes for your emotions and the sensations in your body – be it anger, fear or an underlying current of anxiety, you get to see that you don’t need to take it all so personally. This is a huge and incredibly liberating insight for many.

Learning to take control in any situation

So when that difficult patient walks through the door; practising staying grounded in the moment, pausing and opening to a sense of curiosity, more often than not a sense of calm can emerge in the middle of the anxious thoughts. And then your ability to take control shifts. And I am not saying this is always easy, but that is also why we call it a practice – it is something we come back to again and again.

This is only a taste of what mindfulness meditation can offer, and in my experience this simple practice can contribute immensely to how we deal with clinical and personal challenges, finally regaining a sense of control, and stepping off the very hamster wheel itself. Mindfulness tends to seep in to all areas of our lives, and I would like to invite you to take five minutes out of your day to try this mini-meditation I am offering here today. I wish you all the best on your road to waking up to the life you already have rather than wishing it was something else, and please let me know about what you discover along your way.

Five minutes mini-mindfulness meditation

1.    Take a moment to find a comfortable position, be it seated on a chair or lying on the floor. Allow the weight of your body to relax gently into the seat of the chair or the floor, letting the sense of support gently fill you.
2.    Bring your awareness to your breath and simply notice how it comes in and goes out, without any effort at all. In and out…
3.    Now notice any thoughts you might be having… Be it about patients, about what you are having for dinner… just take a moment to notice your thoughts.
4.  As you are noticing your thoughts, what might it be like to imagine your thoughts as clouds drifting across the sky? Just notice what this is like…
5.  Now place your attention gently on the sky, the space itself that the thoughts are appearing in. Take as much time as you feel comfortable with here.
6.    As you feel more settled, bring yourself back and notice the room around you.
7.    Now, how can you bring this sense of sky and seeing your thoughts simply as drifting clouds back into your day?

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