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How To Be Happier Now! Mindfulness and the Dental Professional

September 14, 2017
by Gloria Alban, DDS, RHN


The dental office is a great place to work. It is very satisfying to be able to help patients improve their health while creating long term relationships and earning a good living. Unfortunately, 83% of dentists and their staff perceive their profession as very stressful. Coping with difficult, anxious patients, scheduling stresses, causing pain and trying to produce perfect work in spite of having little control over long term outcomes; these factors, and many more, cause more than half of dentists to report feeling tense, anxious or frequently depressed.

Mindfulness is a simple concept that can be learned easily. Thousands of well documented studies have shown that the benefits of mindfulness practice include stress reduction, decrease in anxiety and depression, reduced worry, less emotional reactivity, improved well being and even a strengthened immune system.

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Regular mindfulness practice has the potential to prevent burnout and stress.

The dental professional who is self-aware, increased through mindfulness, is more likely to engage in activities to better manage stress. This self-awareness also increases self- compassion, reduces stress and leads to less chance of emotional burnout.

Some Benefits of Mindfulness Training

1. Improves the ability to calm your mind on demand.
2. Helps to develop clarity of the mind leading to increased self-awareness.
3. Increases emotional intelligence and emotional resilience, especially in response to emotional pain.
4. Creativity grows as a result of a peaceful mind.
5. Confidence increases through self-awareness and also by the ability to calm your mind and recover when you lose your cool.

Emotional intelligence includes self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. These skills create the conditions for our own long term happiness. A strong, stable and perceptive attention that creates calmness and clarity is the foundation upon which emotional intelligence is built.  We need to develop response flexibility; the ability to pause before we act. The pause gives us the choice as to how we want to act in that emotional situation. Mindfulness is very important in the development of these skills.

How Does Mindfulness Work?

Mindfulness involves learning to pay attention in the present moment, non-judgementally. Even one mindful breath can enhance calmness and relaxation. Physiologically, the slow and deep breath stimulates the vagus nerve which activates the parasympathetic system resulting in reduced stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure and general calming. Psychologically, when we put our attention on the breath, we are fully in the present moment. This is an important skill to develop. To feel regretful, we need to be “in the past” and to worry we need to be “in the future”. When we are in the present moment, we are free of regret and worry so our body enjoys a
precious moment of rest and recovery.

Mindfulness helps to alter one’s perception of stress and to improve coping skills. Mindfulness practice can improve attentiveness, active listening, empathy, patience, presence, equanimity and acceptance- all of these qualities are very important for a good dentist-patient relationship. Enhancing these skills can help to improve the quality of life for both the dentist and the patient.

Why We Feel Anxious, Uneasy and Worried

Our amygdala is the part of our brain that reacts immediately to threats and stress. Our ancestors survived by being able to quickly act on physical threats and so our brains developed with a negativity bias; it looks for bad news, reacts intensely to it and remembers every dangerous thing we have experienced so we are ready for it the next time.

Our brains and nervous systems have been evolving for over 600 million years and still, the solutions to survival problems faced by ancient reptiles and cavemen are active in our brains today. In our modern world, most of our daily threats are not physical. Regardless, our amygdala reacts to present day fears and worries in the same way as it reacted to the cavemans’ problems. It floods our body with adrenaline and other hormones and these lead us to feel stress, have high blood pressure, develop medical problems and to generally feel bad.  We live in a modern high tech, fast paced world but our brain reactions are stuck in the ancient past. It’s not our fault that we worry; Our brains are programmed for survival to do this.

The good news is that our neocortex has the ability to overrule the amygdala. The neocortex can reason and evaluate the messages from the amygdala and other parts of our brain and tell us that nothing is wrong.. we are not under attack…we can calm down. It sends us messages of comfort and confidence. There is a moment, about a quarter of a second, where the immediate reaction of the amygdala can be prevented by the neocortex. A quarter second is not much time but we can learn to control our amygdala’s immediate reaction to stress.

The key to feeling happier is to develop a better balance between the power of the amygdala and the power of the neocortex. A balance between the instant reaction of amygdala….REACT…. with the power of the neocortex….DO NOT REACT.. let’s look at this threat clearly and evaluate and then we can…. RESPOND…. appropriately.

Mindfulness practice calms the vagus nerve which activates our parasympathetic system.  We can learn to take power away from our amygdala and give more to our neocortex. We learn to respond instead of react!

Try This Simple Exercise 

There are many different types of mindfulness exercises that help to develop the ability to reduce anxiety, improve relaxation and to feel better. Following is a simple example to try that can give you some experience with the feeling of paying mindful attention.

Start by sitting upright with your feet on the ground. Sit away from the back of the chair so your spine can be self-supporting with a sense of presence, here and now. Letting your eyes close or lowering your gaze. Focus on the breath moving into the abdomen; the sensations of each in breath and each out breath. There is no right way to feel. From time to time, you may notice that your mind wanders. This is what minds do. You have woken up and noticed.. this is awareness. Move your attention back to the breath. Each in breath a new beginning; each out breath, a letting go. Each time you mind wanders, notice what is happening and move the mind back to focusing on the breath, in and out.

Continue this exercise for 3-5 minutes and congratulations, you have performed a mindfulness exercise.

Happiness

The great news about happiness is that it is highly trainable. Research suggests that we have a remarkable ability to adapt to both good and bad fortune and that we have a relatively stable level of happiness that we eventually return to even after major positive or negative life events.

Approximately 50% of our happiness is associated with genetics and upbringing. The other half can be improved through mindfulness training. We can learn to incline our minds to become more joyful and feel happier.

Who Heals the Healer?

Mindfulness is about non-striving, contrary to our North American desire for always needing to have and do more. It is about becoming aware and accepting things as they are right now. This leads us to the ability to decide how much we want to do and how much is detrimental to our health and happiness.

Ninety percent of our communication is non-verbal. Through body language, tone, response and eye contact we show our discomfort and disconnection when with our patients. Mindfulness gives us the space to become aware of our own processes and the clarity to respond effectively instead of simply reacting to a situation.

As dental professionals, we need to take care of our own stress and anxiety in order to help ourselves and our patients. Mindfulness offers a respite from stress, moment by moment.

Enrolling in a mindfulness course is a simple way to learn techniques that can improve your life!

References
1) Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression; Segal, Willams, Teasdale, The Guildford Press, New York, 2013
2) Joy on Demand; Chade-Meng Tan, Harper Collins, 2016
3) Search Within Yourself, Chade-Meng Tan, HarperCollins , 2012
4) 10% Happier……..
5) The Myths of Happiness; Sonja Lyubomirsky , Penguin Press, USA, 2013
6) What Happy People Know; Dan Baker and Cameron Stauth, 2003
7) Hardwiring Happiness; Rick Hanson, Harmony Books, 2013
8) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/medu.12200/full
9) https://www.omicsonline.org/management-and-prevention-of-burnout-in-the-dental-practitioner-2161-1122.1000168.pdf


With over 23 years of dental practice and more than 40 years of mindfulness training, Dr. Gloria Alban has the ability to connect with her students and teach them to overcome stress and to be happier.