By: Sally Safa
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Mindfulness in Dentistry
How did I end up speaking about Mindfulness to a group of incredible women at Women in Dentistry?
As with many great things in life, it started with an honest chat over a cup of coffee with a dear friend and colleague, Dr. Effie Habsha.
Effie and I were sharing our challenges of being a woman in dentistry, the stresses of being a dentist and balancing our personal and professional lives.
In these two hours, I shared with Effie my personal challenges with anxiety, stress and finding balance in my life. I had just started my journey in Mindfulness working towards a degree in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Effie encouraged me to share what I had learned and experienced with her amazing group of women.
On November 13th, 2018, I shared my challenges, the stresses we all feel in dentistry and what I had learned about mindfulness. By the end of the presentation, I was so moved, seeing and hearing from many of my colleagues about the challenges that they face in dentistry and the constant pursuit of the work-life balance. Here is a little glimpse of what I shared.
Mindfulness is the new black. It seems that at every turn we are bombarded with being “mindful” at everything that we do. It’s on many magazine and newspaper covers, everything from “mindful shopping” to “mindful eating” and even “mindful singing”! But, what does it mean to be mindful? Being mindful is often imagined by many to be a state of “floating” or total relaxation, of being completely at peace. Many even assume that mindfulness and meditation are one and the same.
During my training in mindfulness, I have come to learn that being mindful is not about forgetting your troubles and being relaxed all the time. It’s actually quite the opposite. Being mindful is being present to your day to day life. The working definition of mindfulness is “Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non judgmentally” (Dr. Kabat-Zinn)
Why would I want to pay attention to my present moment when my present moment might be painful, stressful or very challenging? Because change only comes from knowing what it is that gives us stress or pain. Change can only come from the awareness of how we actually feel in our day to day lives.
My day to day life consists of dentistry and family. While we may all have different personal challenges and family situations, what we all do have in common is dentistry.
When I was in dental school or my Periodontal training, no one told me of the stresses that exist in dentistry. Did you know that as dental practitioners we mirror our anxious patients heart rate and blood pressure? It has been shown that as a patient’s blood pressure and heart rate rises, so does ours and we are affected by the anxiety our patients feel.
In addition to anxious patients, we have many stressors that we face in dentistry, some of which are unique to dentists: relentless pursuit of perfection, being in control, economic and time pressures, competition and a sense of responsibility and guilt to “do no harm”. Our days are filled with stressors which constantly trigger our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). My masters was in the field of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and studying the effects of stress on the immune, endocrine and nervous system. When we are constantly in a state of “fight-flight” we create a dysregulation which often leads to maladaptive coping mechanisms. If we can find a way to decrease the triggers of our SNS and focus on bringing in some of our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) then we can make room for healthy coping mechanisms which will allow us to make professional and personal choices that will help decrease our stress and increase our wellbeing.
Mindfulness can help bring awareness to our day to day lives, identifying our stressors, realizing when we are triggered and in those moments bringing in tools to help calm that sympathetic response and bring on more parasympathetic response.
What tools does mindfulness teach us? Some are as simple as breathing. There are many apps and “breathing bubbles” that can be found online that give us reminders to breathe and will teach and help diaphragmatic breathing – which has been shown to trigger the parasympathetic system, which is what we want.
There are also many mindfulness apps such as Headspace and Calm which guide you through meditations and recordings, which help us to bring the needed space in our lives to “just be”. When we give ourselves permission to “just be” and take the time needed to calm our system down, we break this vicious cycle of constant doing. When we are stuck in constant doing, we can’t always see that life can be any different.
Given that dentistry is already a profession that creates many triggers and often has us spending the majority of our day in “fight-flight” mode, mindfulness is the perfect medicine to help us to pay attention to our everyday moments. Those include the tough moments when we are stressed and anxious, but also learning to be present to our children and our families. Learning to be kind and compassionate to ourselves and those we love.
The science of the nervous system can be summarized as “neurons that fire together wire together”. The more time we spend triggered, stressed and anxious, the more of our neural network fires up and wires up this way. The more time we spend present in our lives, paying attention to the people and things we love, the more mental space we create to bring on the changes that will ultimately bring us happiness and well being.
Dr. Sally Safa