According to Mental Health America, which has observed May as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949, this year’s theme is Tools 2 Thrive, which provides practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase their resiliency regardless of their personal situation. Their toolkit includes resources on dealing with anger and frustration to taking time for yourself.
Plenty of rest and sustaining positive energy were also among the tips and tactics four new dentists shared in how they maintain their mental health, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The New Dentist News asked these dentists to share and expand on how they’ve supported their mental health this past year and a half:
Alena Lotz, D.M.D., Atlanta
Maintaining my mental well-being is so important to me. Exercise is my favorite way to decompress and relax. I enjoy going on walks with my husband, attending fitness classes, and practicing yoga. I also make time to spend with my friends and family — they are my greatest supporters and my closest confidants. I am lucky that my sisters and mother are all dentists and can relate to the stressors of our careers. Having family members in the profession provides mutual understanding that is priceless, and I am grateful for the impact it has on my mental and emotional health. Finally, after a long day at the office, I usually snuggle into bed and read with a cup of tea before falling asleep as early as possible!
Over the last year, I’ve had ups and downs with my mental well-being. I opened a brand-new practice in January 2020 and then had to close for three months due to COVID-19. As with many of our colleagues, I’ve been navigating the unknown, the unpredictable, the things I can control and the things I cannot.
With so much of my focus on my practice, staff, and patients, I found myself slacking on one of the more important aspects of life: my own health. I chose to start a meal delivery service (Green Chef) which allows me to customize my meals for a ketogenic diet and helps limit how much time I need to spend meal planning and grocery shopping. It helps me eat healthier and gives me more time for other things (i.e. a fitness routine). I like it so much my friends would think I am sponsored by the company!
With a busy schedule, I make plenty of excuses to not pencil in time for exercise but as we all know (and sometimes conveniently ignore) exercise is one of the best things one can do for mental health. I made myself a promise to do physical activity at least 3 times a week. From Peloton to rock climbing, from tennis to golf – I have been forcing myself out of my chair and trying to do something fun and rewarding. I change up the activities pretty frequently and this gives me something to look forward to every few days. Whether it is hiking a new spot or paddle boarding a new lake – getting my mind off the clinical dentistry and the practice management helps me come into work with a bigger smile every day.
Ultimately, although patients should always be one of our highest priorities, we must also remember to take care of ourselves because our career is not a sprint – it is a marathon – and I plan on crossing the finish line smiling.
"You can't pour from an empty cup."
As a health care provider, I must have a full cup before I can pour into my patients, my team, and my family. I must heal myself before I can heal others. When I think about maintaining my mental well-being, I think about filling my cup with wellness practices and positive energy, so in turn when my cup is full this positive energy will overflow out. When there are inevitable stresses in life and my cup gets "bumped," it is wellness and positivity that will flow out.
I have studied many different frameworks of wellness; the traditional yoga sutras and 8 limbs of yoga, the science of well-being, the ten guideposts to wholehearted living, the essential seven habits, the four pillars.... and these are the practices that I have taken and created into my own toolbox for well-being: Movement & Mobility; Healthful Food & Drink; Rest & Relax & Sleep; Presence & Mindfulness; Gratitude & Goals; Creativity & Play; Time in Nature; Simplify & Organize; Social Connection; and Kindness & Contribution.
I aim to dedicate energy towards these things every week. Some weeks are more focused on just one or two tools, and some days I am able to truly honor each tool. Regardless, I check in with myself at the start of each quarter to gain more awareness on where I am at, what is working for me, and where I am feeling stuck. Read more about these practices here.
One practice that has been tremendously helpful in supporting my mental health is asking for help. I have worked with therapists, coaches, and mentors through personal struggles, business endeavors, and life transitions. Knowing when and how to ask for help can be difficult, and I spent some time navigating that for me a life coach was more impactful in my mental health than therapy. There is a time and place for both, be sure to take time learning about your options when reaching out. Participating in communities of like-minded dentists through mastermind groups has also had a major role in keeping grounded. I thrive with accountability, and creating community has been transformative.
Lastly, maintaining my mental well-being is most impacted by checking in with myself. At the beginning of every year I take time for a personal annual review of sorts. I take time to define or redefine my personal purpose, values, and vision for my life. Every quarter, I check in with this list and my list of goals and audit whether or not I am living in alignment. Am I taking actions in my life that are putting me on the path of my greater life vision? Sometimes I realize that I have fallen off track, and that is often when I lose touch of the wellness tools in my toolbox. To refill my cup, I practice integrating more wellness tools into each day, and schedule accountability with my community, a therapist, or a coach.
Dentistry is a challenging field and in many ways the profession has created an environment that makes it all the harder to maintain your mental well-being. Many dentists work alone, dental school has a created an eye for perfection that is our own worst enemy, on top of crippling debt, stagnant wages, and I haven’t even described the incidents happening around the world to even everyday life.
Trust me, in less than a year I went from buying a house, COVID-19, natural disasters of wildfires and ice storms, two local activations in the Oregon National Guard, my wife and I are expecting our first child, and lastly I am writing this on my phone during my yearly Army training in Iowa.
1. How I combat stress includes talking with my spouse/family, friends, peers etc. Having a dentist friend who you can share and talk to is important, even better if you share similarly held faith, morals, and ethics. For example, I have been blessed to have a fellow dentist and co-worker who I joke is my Asian mother. In fact, she came with me to the grocery store when I picked out flowers when I first started dating my wife. Having trustful conversations about life/dentistry with someone from a similar profession helps encourage each other and can help when you stumble. Having more than one is even better. In the Army, when you are physically injured you have four soldiers carrying the litter. If you are wounded mentally how many people in your life will carry your litter?
2. We sit all day. Exercise, gets steps, and some sort of physical activity.
3. Being honest with others, accepting the imperfections, and realizing clinically acceptable is clinically acceptable. You can’t have PTSD ("perfectional" tooth stress disorder). It is the patients emergency or health not yours. Did you put the cavity there or tie their hands so they couldn’t brush their teeth? Nope. All you can do is have the patient leave healthier and more informed than when they came in. And of course, be honest with your peers you trust. For example, if your business has been hit hard, there’s no shame or pride in being honest and getting it off your chest. Lying or hiding when things are not OK is not helping and only eats at your soul.
4. Lastly your mental health includes your spiritual health. Having faith or belief in something greater than yourself gives you the strength and will to hold on when all seems lost. Having contentions with others on a physical, mental and spiritual level is in the end what keeps me going.
I am human, I will cry
I will bleed, I will die
I will fall, I will scream
But I hope and I dream
While Life is impossible with just me
Life can be conquered when its we
When we have others to dry our tears
Bind our wounds, tend our fears
They lift me up when I fall,
love me and give their all.
Spend your life’s with the we
And when with others you will see
We are human, we have happiness to give
We will grow, we will live
We will rise, we will redeem
We have hope and we dream
While Life is impossible with just me
Life can be conquered when it’s we