Handling Stress in Dentistry

November 15, 2016
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

Dentistry is a high-stress career with high rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction. Take these steps to relax and prevent burnout and more serious health complications.

These stress management techniques are easy to apply in your everyday life and can help build the foundation for a healthier mental state.

There’s a lot to worry about if you’re a dentist. You’re worried about providing the best possible care to often fearful patients, and you’re worried about your professional liability if some aspect of your treatment plan goes sideways. Running a dental practice, paying back colossal student loans, dealing with insurance companies for reimbursement, and performing delicate tasks in excruciating detail all result in a high-stress career. With outside influences like the presidential election and the fast-approaching holiday season, your stress level might be off the charts.

It’s time to take a deep breath. Like we discussed before, constantly working in a high-stress environment can lead to myriad problems like depression, anxiety, addiction, and professional burnout. The bottom line is that yes, you have a tremendously stressful career, but you’ve got to take steps to minimize your stress levels where you can.

Stress in Dentistry

Stress can have significant effects on health, and it’s been associated with many health disorders like heart disease, muscle and skeletal problems, and fluctuations in weight. The stress of being a dentist starts … well … before you’re even technically a dentist. It starts in dental school. According to one study, dental students have a 100% prevalence of stress, and it’s easy to see why. People who pursue dentistry as a profession have a tendency to be perfectionists, with educational track records that include high achievement and academic excellence.

Students often have a hard time coping with the demands of dental school. They are shouldering massive student loan debt in order to achieve their dreams. Further, students often experience stress as a result of other, non-academic factors, such as changes to living accommodations once in school and changes in personal relationships as a result of pursuing dentistry.

It’s not like stress levels decrease after graduation either. Once school is over, dentists experience stress on the job in many different forms. Owning a dental practice is a huge commitment, both personally and financially, and many dentists get in over their heads trying to figure out the business side of things. Even if you don’t own a practice, you’re still working extended hours in cramped conditions, performing extremely detailed work on patients who are often fearful.

Job-related stress has been the subject of numerous studies examining its effects on overall quality of life. One such study looked at data from 797 primary healthcare workers, including dentists, with the goal of evaluating the relationships between stressful work conditions and poor quality of life. Generally, workers who reported their jobs required high effort but resulted in low personal reward self-reported a low quality of life. Interestingly, healthcare workers who reported high work effort and high personal reward also said their quality of life was lower, indicating that over-commitment to work had a significant negative impact on them.

Different Types of Stress

We all experience stress. It’s what we do with the stress that ultimately determines our outcomes. Some stressors can be seen as a type of good stress (eustress). This type of stress is beneficial because it allows us to focus our energies into improving our situations, which can occur through increased motivation, higher levels of performance, and excitation about the goals we’re trying to accomplish.

Conversely, when we experience negative stress (destress), a whole host of physical and emotional consequences can occur. For example, mounting negative stress causes a buildup of epinephrine in the body. If epinephrine occurs in high enough qualities for long enough time periods, it causes fat breakdown, which moves fat from the body into the bloodstream where it builds up over time and forms deposits in blood vessels. From there, these deposits might break off of the vessel wall, causing heart attack or stroke.

On the next page: 7 Strategies to Cope with Stress

How Can Dentists Deal with Negative Stress?

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways dentists can manage their stress levels. It’s important to find what works for you, and make a conscious effort to put those stress management techniques into practice if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed.

Some stress management techniques are broader and are easy to apply in your everyday life. They help build the foundation for a healthier mental state. Eating well-balanced, nutritionally dense meals provides your body with all the energy you need to function at your best. Getting enough sleep helps your mind to reset and refresh itself. Exercise, including practices like yoga, helps to keep your body at its peak performance level, in addition to providing mental and emotional benefits.

Additionally, there are several simple things you can do if you find yourself getting stressed out at work.

7 Strategies to Cope with Stress

  • Start by taking some deep breaths, and count to 10 slowly to help you to focus your mind.
  • Adopt a positive attitude, and keep in mind that even if you strive for perfectionism in your dentistry practice, you might not get there. Sometimes it’s ok to be satisfied by however close you can get to perfect.
  • Try to learn what exactly triggers your stress. Is it performing a certain procedure? Perhaps it’s dealing with a specific co-worker? If you can identify your main sources of stress, you can start to look for patterns in your daily life that can help you avoid the stressor as much as possible.
  • Talk to someone. Your friends and family can already tell if you’re overwhelmed, and they’ll probably welcome the chance to help you find solutions to your stress problems.
  • Accept that you can’t control everything in life. No one can. This helps to put your stress in perspective — is it really as bad as it is in your head?
  • Look for the humor in situations. After all, a good laugh can go a long way toward helping you feel better.
  • Finally, take a step back and remove yourself from the situation if you need to. Sometimes, you just have to walk away from something to clear your head.

Click here to sign up for more Dentist's Money Digest content and updates.