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MyView: Dental careers and stress

June 16, 2014

By Susan R. Cushing, D.M.D.

Susan Cushing
Susan R. Cushing, D.M.D.
When I chose dentistry for my career, I knew it would be challenging and I would need to study a lot and fully commit myself, but I never anticipated the toll it would take on me to achieve my goal. Looking back I had no preparation for how this career path would change me physically, emotionally and spiritually.

While I had studied very hard at college and expected to do the same at dental school, I was not fully prepared for the intensive pressure and negativity from the instructors, the unrelenting effort needed for the clinical dental labs and direct patient care and the unending amount of class work.

When I finally completed my enormous list of graduation requirements, passed my boards and got my dental license, this overachiever was relieved and exhausted. I was pleased that I had gotten through unscathed, but was completely unaware of the impact that those years of continual stress had taken on me and many of my classmates.

Since I had so many debts, I accepted the first associateship I was offered and when it proved unsatisfying, I took a risk and started my own dental practice. Although I had no training as to how to run a business, I felt confident, and thought to myself: "Just how hard can it be? I'll figure it out."

Somehow, I was able to pull it off and become a business owner. Everyday I wore the hats of CEO, business manager, negotiator, therapist, politician, and most importantly, "Dentist Extraordinaire." Things went well at first until I started having difficulty sleeping and feeling anxious most of the time.  I was always worrying about earning enough to pay the multitude of bills that stacked up each month.

I began to feel more and more stress and was unable to relax. I decided to work evenings and Saturdays to earn more and feel more in control of my finances. I hired consultants who encouraged me to make changes and I added more chairs, hired more staff and increased my advertising.

In retrospect, I barely noticed that while I was "improving" my practice, I had became distant from my family, pushed my staff harder and harder and had stopped going out. My wish was to do well and keep things moving forward, but it seemed everyone around me became more and more unhappy with me.

I dealt with it by increasing my obsessive, compulsive behaviors in order to get more done, control things better and try to please everybody.

Then one day I woke up and asked myself, "Why do I feel so unhappy? How did I gain all this weight? What can I do or take to feel better?" I soon realized that I was in burnout and had lost myself in my drive for success. I questioned, "Had I ever felt happy and did I even like dentistry?"

As I looked for answers, I noticed some colleagues had gotten divorced, neglected their children, were estranged from their families and some had even become addicted to alcohol, drugs, work, gambling, sex or food. Though sometimes these situations can be the result of life events and poor interpersonal relationships, sometimes they are actually signs of burnout.

It was a real eye-opener for me when I noticed many articles in the dental literature that said burnout is very common in the dental field. Although this upset me at first and made me feel depressed, it gave me the impetus to find a solution.

I discovered that if you are an addict, then the first order of business is to get help. We are not victims and we can choose a different path. One can get help from a therapist or go to Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous, Sex and Love Addiction Anonymous, Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous or many other 12-step programs for recovery.

If you are not an addict but seem to be dealing with issues of codependency, or if you are unable to be happy until everyone else around you is happy, then your counselor, therapist, doctor or A.A. General Service Office can help you find support through a 12-step program.

The biggest realization for me was discovering that if running a dental practice was not enjoyable for me any longer, then I could sell my practice and become an associate or find a second "encore" career that I had only fantasized about. I discovered that there is life after owning a dental practice. I learned that there are actually many career choices out there if you really want a change.

For me, selling a practice or changing careers is not a failure. It is actually very courageous and an adventure in the making. I only had to be completely honest with myself and find my hidden truth. Once I did I could relax, meditate, have fun and thoroughly enjoy my life once again.

Dr. Cushing is a private practice dentist in Pocasset, Massachusetts. She received her D.M.D. degree in 1981. She holds a mastership from the Academy of General Dentistry and a fellowship from the International College of Dentists. She is a master practitioner in neuro-linguistic programming and is a clinical hypnotherapist.

Editor's note: The ADA Center for Professional Success offers a variety of tips and resources on community, wellness and work-life balance at Many state dental associations also offer resources and support services.