How to Relax When Dentistry Is So Demanding

Josie Dovidio, DDS
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You likely don’t need me to tell you that rest is important, but do you even know how to relax? That might be a weird question, since resting should be straightforward. But plenty can get in the way of restorative downtime. The truth is, many of us are terrible at it, even if we know we need it.

For many dentists, relaxing is easier said than done – but it’s a skill worth honing to recuperate from the stressors inherent to practicing dentistry. Rest is crucial – not just for your physical health but also for your mental health.

Discover What Actually Relaxes You
It sounds crazy but many people aren’t sure how to relax. You may think you’re resting when you’re really not. For example, maybe you find scrolling through Facebook for a couple of hours relaxing. That is, of course, until you stumble upon a frustrating dumpster fire post in a dental forum or a family member’s post that makes you question your bloodline.

Maybe you find yourself doing other activities that are supposed to be relaxing—like taking a bubble bath or getting a massage—but actually find them boring at best or unhelpful at worst. Relaxation isn’t one-size-fits-all. What may relax one person may exacerbate stress in another.

Plus, relaxation is not a particular activity. It is the outcome of an activity. Invest some time exploring self-care practices or hobbies – whether they’re physical ones like tennis or mental ones like reading. An extrovert may find socializing relaxing. An introvert, on the other hand, may prefer quiet meditation after a day of interacting with patients. As you journey to discover what relaxes you, pay attention to how you feel after the activity. Do you feel calmer? Grounded? At ease? If yes, bookmark that as a way to replenish yourself when feeling depleted. If no, try something else.

If your go-to activities no longer relax you and new activities seem daunting: 1) that is a clear sign that you need to clear your head and 2) start small. Like, so small that you think it’s absurd. Try sitting quietly for 30 seconds. Or, do one breathing exercise a day. Your activity doesn’t have to be grandiose to be effective.

Be Intentional and Mindful When Resting
When it comes to resting, quality wins over quantity. Distracted downtime, like skimming emails while lying around for 2 hours, is not as effective as 30 minutes of intentional repose. Get into the habit of mindfully acknowledging, “Okay, it’s time to rest,” and knowing what this really means – no email, no voicemail, no social media. Devote your time to the chosen activity simply for the pleasure and benefit of it.

Be clear about what you hope to get out of your rest period. Is your intention to be refreshed? What would that take? Perhaps “escape” is a better adjective. Try an immersive activity like painting or water skiing. Do you hope to reign in anxiety? Outdoor exercises are quite effective for reducing anxiety and depression.¹ Do you need to be comforted? Soothed? Maybe snuggling with your pooch would do the trick. Once you understand what you’re specifically needing, select the best activity to achieve that outcome.

Schedule Time to Rest and Do it Regularly
The lives of dental professionals are run by schedules. You might as well schedule in proper rest periods. If you wait for a “better time” or until you feel like you “deserve” to relax, you will never do it. Scheduling purposeful breaks protects the time you’ve set aside, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Look at your calendar, both at work and at home and create pockets of “you time”. Downtime is not exclusive to weekends.

Let Go of Anxiety or Guilt
In our high-performance society, productivity is seen as an indicator of worth. As long as we subscribe to the hustle culture, it may be challenging to remember that physiologically and psychologically, our bodies and brains need rest. Learn to manage emotions or negative self-talk that surround the idea of taking a break. If you can’t relax because you’re feeling anxious about unfinished work or chores, remember that to-do lists are perpetual. Pausing for a bit won’t significantly impact the completion of your list. If anything, returning to your work once you’re refreshed may even make you more productive. Instead of feeling guilty or thinking of rest as a treat for a job well done, remind yourself that a respite will support your ability to keep up with your responsibilities in the long run.

Establish a Ritual to Get in the Mood
Downtime rituals are a great way to tell your brain that it’s time to shift out of work mode into rest mode. To support the transition, consider doing a brain dump so you can mentally let go of the day. Perhaps an end of workday meditation can help set the tone. Maybe a song will set the mood (might I suggest “Closing Time” by Semisonic) or drink a tall glass of water. Whatever you choose, let it be a signal to your brain that it’s time to rest.

Lastly, Go Easy on Yourself
Don’t get caught up in thinking you have to rest perfectly in order for it to be effective. Being intentional about your downtime is a worthy pursuit for many reasons but it shouldn’t become an added source of stress. Even once you get the hang of it, there will be days when negative thoughts or guilt creep in. In fact, in dentistry, there are probably going to be a lot of those days… and it’s okay. Accept that it’s an ongoing challenge and be gentle with yourself. Strive for progress over perfection. Some rest is better than none. The positive reinforcement from emerging refreshed will be enough to have you craving periods of pause regularly. Invite the peace in. You deserve it!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Dovidio graduated in 1997 from Northwestern University Dental School with honors from the Academy of General Dentistry. She completed advanced training at the VA Medical Center in North Hills, California, where she served as chief dental resident. A certified yoga teacher, Dr. Dovidio lives in Southern California with her husband and two sons and runs Yoga for Dentists, an online community of dental professionals who are interested in healthy living. She offers free content on the Yoga for Dentists YouTube Channel and podcast as well as in a private Facebook group and on Instagram. For a free End of Workday Meditation you can download to your device, click here or visit yogafordentists.net. She can also be reached at josie@yogafordentists.net.

References:
1. Gladwell, Valerie F et al. “The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all.” Extreme physiology & medicine vol. 2,1 3. 3 Jan. 2013, doi:10.1186/2046-7648-2-3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3710158/

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