I’m a planner. I like to know how my day will unfold. I like to know my step-by-step procedures. I like my organized processes. I like checklists. It creates consistency, and outcomes are more predictable.
I don’t like emergencies in my day. They tend to give me the most panic. I’ve struggled to understand why this continues to be something that increases my stress levels on any given day.
A Typical Scenario
I come in early to review my schedule. (I have stopped looking the night before because this gave me stress.) I have a look through the day. I like to read my past notes or the past notes of other dentists, as I work in a group practice.
I then lean back in my chair and look at the day as a whole. I know which patients will take a lot out of me. I know which visits will require more speaking and which ones will require more listening. I’m ready for the day.
The day starts to unfold. Everything is going well and going as planned. Then, an emergency gets added to my list. Chief complaint: swelling and pain.
My mind starts to race. Swelling and pain. Who is the patient? Was it the last filling I did? Was it a tooth I extracted that didn’t heal? How swollen is swollen? How much pain is pain? What will I have to do? How will it fit into my schedule? Will it require more time than allotted? Do I complete the procedure today, or do I bring the patient back? If I start today, will I run behind? If I run behind, who will I piss off? The next patient? The assistant? My staff?
I head into the next appointment. One of my original scheduled appointments. My thoughts are still fluttering. I’m listening to the patient, but am I really listening? I’m distracted. I know. The patient starts to talk, but I know what I need to do.
“Excuse me for a moment,” I say. “I’ll be right back.”
I leave the operatory. I head back to my office. I take a deep breath. I tell myself, “Be present. You can’t predict what will come walking in the door, but you know exactly what and how to help the patient sitting in front of you.” I tilt my head back and roll my shoulders. My neck and back crack because I know my ergonomics are poor.
I walk back into the operatory.
“Thanks for your patience,” I say.
The appointment continues, and everything goes as planned. The procedure is done.
I head back to my office. Just as I start to walk, my heart starts racing again. Pain and swelling? What could it be?
I make it back to my office. I sit in my chair and think, “I’m five years out from graduation. Why do I keep feeling like this?” I start to unravel my thoughts. I start to remind myself that this worrying is not beneficial because I don’t actually know what the problem is.
Then I remind myself of the question that usually snaps me out of this mindset each and every time. And so I ask myself, “Jessica, regardless of the problem, can you find a solution?” I answer back, “Yeah, I can.”
Why We Worry
Our minds worry because it’s a form of problem solving. It’s innate. Our brains our literally programmed and wired this way. I experience spiraling thoughts, which is a form of catastrophizing. Worrying can be helpful, until it’s not. When it prevents you from completing tasks or procedures or it affects your life in a negative way, then worrying is no longer beneficial.
When I answer my question with, “Yeah, I can,” I give myself the permission to figure out an answer when the problem presents itself and not a second sooner. Not everyone may like the answer, but it’s still an answer nonetheless. I am capable.
The reason why I worry, or why I create spiraling thoughts, is because I don’t think I am capable of finding an answer. My brain stumbles and thinks I need to find every possible solution before the problem happens.
But in actuality, whether that emergency is placed first thing in the morning or at the end of the day, I know I will be able to find the answer. So here’s my question to you. How do you manage your thoughts?
Dr. Metcalfe is the founder of The Alchemist Dentist, an international speaker, a coach, a mental health activist, and a dentist to oncology patients. Currently, she is staff dentist and education director at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Canada. Her mission with The Alchemist Dentist is to dismantle the impostor phenomenon and perfectionism as well as prevent burnout for dentists and the dental team. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.