Dentist, motivational speaker and coach Memnia Theodorou discusses mental health and how dental professionals can change their way of thinking for more positive and healthy outcomes.
The last few months have been particularly challenging for our profession. From lockdown days to worries about PPE, to now returning in a completely changed landscape of how we practise dentistry. Our profession has been shaken to its core and we don’t know what the future holds. For many of our fellow dentists, this is enough to cause sleepless nights and worries on multiple fronts: worries about our safety, financial viability and professional advancement.
Resilience seems to be needed in dentistry more than ever these days. Dentistry was a profession with high burn out rates, high suicide rates and high anxiety (Dentistry Confidence Monitor, 2019, Toon et al, 2019) before coronavirus. Our mental health is at risk even more now. Resilience training can help reduce anxiety, it helps deal with uncertainty, it enhances problem solving and it empowers individuals and teams. Furthermore, it can help you reach your potential and thrive.
Resilience is universally recognised as the ability to “bounce back” after adversity. Academics see three different facets in resilience.
- Recovery: returning back to the normal, pre-stressor level of functioning
- Resistance: minimum or no signs of disturbance following a traumatic event
- Reconfiguration: key aspects of the person have changed as a result of the traumatic experience (Lepore & Revenson, 2006).
Learning to be resilient
In this latter part of resilience, we can see a hidden opportunity: this is the chance to return wiser, stronger, a better version of ourselves. And not in spite of the traumatic experience, but because of it. In these times, the pandemic is our collective trauma. But this notion is apt for any highly stressful life situation. It’s the old adage “what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger”.
So, resilience is a very useful trait to have. But how do we develop it? Does everyone have it? And how can we learn to enhance ours?
Thankfully, we know that everyone is resilient on some level. This is not an innate characteristic saved only for the elite few. And furthermore, it’s not a fixed trait, a trait that you’re either born with or not. It’s a malleable attitude in life. Sure, resilience levels vary in each human being. Depending on the family you were brought up in, the mindset you came to develop and the challenges you faced in the past, you might be less or more resilient.
Interpretation is everything
But we can all learn to increase our own levels of resilience. And to develop resilience, you must face some adversity. So really, this universal challenge we all face, is our opportunity to learn how to “bounce back” from any difficulty, and utilise this skill further in our life.
The first thing you can do to increase your resilience levels is to examine and reframe your way of thinking and interpreting events. There is great power in the narrative we choose to tell ourselves and others about the difficulties we face in life. Research shows it’s not necessarily the actual challenge that will determine our future mental and physical health. It’s actually down to our interpretation and the meaning we ascribe to that event (Rahe et al., 1970). And even though we mostly can’t affect outside negative events (ie coronavirus), we do have the power to choose how we think of this event.
In psychology, we know we all have “cognitive distortions'”, or what we call “thinking traps”. Thinking traps are really common and they are ways to interpret events that usually have a negative spin on them. They prevent us from overcoming the event and they prevents us from looking at it from a different perspective. Additionally, they hold us into a negative loop of thinking that it’s hard to escape from.
There are plenty of thinking traps and I would invite you to have a search to find which ones are your own. Below, I’m describing three common thinking traps:
All or nothing thinking:
This is when we look at situations in terms of extremes: things are either good or bad, a success or a failure. We are either going to lose our jobs in this pandemic or we are going to be in high demand. In reality, most events have a more moderate explanation and by focusing on the two extremes, we forget to look at all the shades of grey in between.
This happens when we only pay attention to the bad things that happen, but ignore all the good things. It’s when we focus on all the negatives that coronavirus has brought upon us, and forget to count the silver linings.
These are the sentences that usually begin with the words like “never” or “always” or “everyone”. We say “this always happens to me”, or “nobody understands how difficult it is”. This type of thinking does not take into consideration all the situations or events. Instead, it uses one instance to generalise for all the situations.
There are plenty more thinking traps and the first step to changing them is to actually recognise them. To call them out. To realise what damage you’ve been doing to your resilience levels and to others by keeping this type of thinking. I would invite you to sit and write down all these consequences you’ve experienced personally (emotional, behavioral and physical) and generally. Does it elevate your stress levels? Does it make you snappy to your loved ones? Have you had sleepless nights because you keep repeating this thinking pattern?
Swap the negative for the positive
Just by looking at the real consequences of a way of thinking, is sometimes enough to gives us a little wake up call. The next step I’d invite you to do is to try to swap the negative way of thinking with a more positive, or even a neutral one. Could you perhaps replace “nobody understands” me with “I’m sure other dentists feel this way too”?
Could you perhaps write down other times in your past that life didn’t happen that way? To help dispute your thinking of “it always happens to me”? Could you remind yourself of all the options in between the two polar opposites?
The truth is, we can train our brain to focus on the narrative we chose. Every time your brain resists taking the new approach, just remind yourself of the consequences the previous way of thinking. And every time you see those thinking traps popping up, just pause, take a deep breath, and choose to replace your thought with the new, more neutral one.
Little by little you will learn not to let those thoughts drag you down. Each time you are faced with a difficulty, you will find yourself snapping out of the unfavourable interpretation a lot quicker.
This technique can be used individually at home. But if you wish to have someone help you with this, to reframe your way of thinking, a coach might be what you need. As a dentist and a qualified coach with a masters in Applied Positive Psychology, I can be of help.