Links between mental and physical health in dentistry

Luke Hutchings looks at how we can use the links between mental and physical health to improve our wellbeing.

There are so many different facets of health that w e often break them down into groups to make them more manageable – oral, physical and mental, for example. However, these lines are becoming ever more blurred as we strive for a more cohesive healthcare system that supports the population in a holistic and comprehensive way.

To this end, there is a growing body of research that indicates the significant associations between mental and physical health. Not only is this relevant for the patient care we provide, but it is also important that we apply the principles to our own wellbeing too.

Mental health in the profession

Among early career dentists, the top concerns are about making mistakes (42%), direct patient complaints (25%) and confrontation with patients during treatment (17%) (Dental Protection, 2022). For all dentists, as many as 86% reported increased workplace pressures in the last two-three years, with almost 40% likely to retire or leave practice in the next five years. This survey found that more than half of participants had reduced their working hours as a coping mechanism (Dental Defence Union, 2023).

Most recently, and even more concerningly, a survey has been published suggesting that 57% of dental professionals feel their mental health is worse now than it was during the pandemic. The findings also show half of participants to be pessimistic about the future, with up to 56% re-evaluating their future in dentistry (Dental Protection, 2023).

This is incredibly sad to read and I, for one, believe that we can absolutely turn this around. Of course, some of the pressures are unavoidable, but by working together, supporting each other and improving all aspects of our health, all dental professionals can benefit. By extension, our patients will benefit too – the existing access issues will not be resolved with fewer professionals in practice!

Linking to the physical

Mental health challenges can often manifest as physical symptoms, with stress linked to everything from headaches to upset stomachs, insomnia, frequent colds, bruxism… the list goes on. Being aware of the physical signs may be the first step in recognising and proactively addressing a problem.

It also works the other way around. For example, a long-term physical condition can negatively impact mental health, leading to anxiety, low self-esteem and loneliness (NHS, 2023). Plus, we can’t consider the topic without mentioning the links between mental and oral health – with psychological conditions associated with poorer dental health outcomes as well (Tiwari et al, 2022).

Improving our health

As dentists, we care for our patients and are very good at encouraging them to look after themselves better, but it seems we often don’t do this for ourselves.

Now, in no way would I suggest that simply improving physical health is the solution for colleagues feeling mentally drained. However, we should consider this as one way to enhance how we feel, in body and mind.

For instance, physical activity can help to alleviate some of the stress and tension we feel, it can increase focus, improve appetite, boost energy levels and reduce frustration (Mental Health Foundation, 2024), while also improving cardiovascular health (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, 2023).

Reviewing our diet is important for nurturing both body and mind, as is getting enough sleep. In addition, some people find meditation, mindfulness and/or practising gratitude advantageous for both mental and physical health (relating to the immune system, for example) (Jamil A et al, 2023).

I find that even doing (or not doing) one thing can help to improve how I feel in myself. For colleagues who are facing difficulties in practice, I would urge you to take some time for yourself and consider your own mental and physical health – for the good of yourself, your family and your patients.

For a full list of references, email [email protected].

This article first appeared in Dentistry magazine. 

Follow Dentistry on Instagram to keep up with all the latest dental news and trends.

Get the most out of your membership by subscribing to Dentistry CPD
  • Access 600+ hours of verified CPD courses
  • Includes all GDC recommended topics
  • Powerful CPD tracking tools included
Register for webinar
Add to calendar