COVID-19 Enables Us to Reconsider Our Priorities

18 May 2020 Maggie Augustyn, DDS
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Most of us are all too used to hearing that “these are unprecedented times” and that “we’ve reached uncharted waters.” We want these bizarre circumstances to be over already, and we want to get back into the workforce.

Yes, we probably would want to see our craziest patients and go back to relive our toughest days. We want the mayhem-like-staycation to be in our rearview mirror. Our closets have been organized, our basements are spotless, and our pantries are alphabetized. We are going stir crazy with cabin fever, as are our kids. We all are ready to move closer to the next step in dealing with the fallout that COVID-19 will bring.

It is essential to remember that what we are going through today and what our future holds for the next few months, spilling into years, is going to define our generation. Some say that our current situation may prove to be as significant to us as the Great Depression, World War II, and the Vietnam War were to those generations.


With all of that in mind, working through and admitting to having concerns can bring a sense of peace, not just today but for weeks and months to come. The COVID-19 crisis breeds uncertainty, confusion, and fear, and our faith maybe even falters. Acknowledging our feelings will allow us to find acceptance and hopefully get us to move past this difficult time. Most importantly, by validating our feelings and each other’s feelings as we experience this crisis together, we have each other to lean on.

The most surprising part is that despite how long we’ve been in quarantine, the rollercoaster of emotions has only settled a little. We continue to relive the emotions of three weeks ago or two days ago. There is some level of having normalized those emotions, but not as much as we would have hoped. And in the spirit of experiencing these various emotions, I hope mapping and explaining them all will come in handy.

Validate and Normalize

We are all unsettled by the events that we are just beginning to understand. As we face the unknown, we’re unaware of when this process will end or change. We ought to admit that we are experiencing emotions, and many of them are unfamiliar. People with no previous history of anxiety and depression may begin to experience them. Also, those with a prior history of mental illness may feel their symptoms exacerbated.

As we become more familiar with this situation, our anxiety and panic, and maybe even our fear, will diminish. In order to attenuate those emotions, we need to work together at validating the very feelings that may be new to us.

It’s important to share our concerns with our trusted professionals: our accountants, attorneys, practice management gurus, and even financial advisors. The knowledge they posses can be a great factor in finding support and reducing both panic and fear.

It is just as important to find a way to validate and identify those feelings within your own emotional space. Furthermore, normalizing and sharing that validation within our community will prove to be essential. The emotional turmoil we are experiencing is made up of feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, grief, and the loss of identity.

Social Distancing Isn’t New

The COIVD-19 situation is completely unknown. The “stay put” mandate we are currently following is like nothing the world has ever had to endure. Social distancing, which includes catching up with our neighbors from our driveways, may be the new normal.

But if we really examine social distancing closely, it may appear that we might have been practicing something akin to it since we began carrying smart phones. We have relied on electronics for much of our social interactions since the bringing of this millennium.

In 2019, 79% of Americans had a social networking profile. Keeping in touch with our friends and coworkers via video calls, emails, texting, and social media posts isn’t as drastic a change as we may think. The fact that we have for so long relied on social interaction via the internet ought to bring us some comfort and ease as we depend on it now.

With social distancing may come a lack of social acceptance. And many of us depend on social acceptance to self-define or even to value our self esteem. With modern conveniences, people can survive on their own. But without family, friends, and other human beings around, our existence isn’t as satisfactory.

All in all, it’s important to remember that the situation we are facing is temporary. We will return to seeing our family and friends. These weeks or even months will prove to be just a blip on the radar within our lifespan, though it will have a significant impact. We have the rest of our lifetimes to see each other. And when we do, perhaps we will no longer take it for granted.

Loneliness

Dentists are especially familiar with loneliness, which impacts our mental fitness. Loneliness affects our emotions by making it difficult to consider all points of view. It also complicates our decision making, makes it difficult to focus, and impedes our ability to process work or other necessary tasks.

Scientists have discovered that loneliness brings about physical manifestations. Loneliness increases stress, and our bodies go into flight or fight mode. Bodily functions, especially digestion, are affected. GI problems and crampy stomachs are not uncommon. Loneliness also can worsen headaches and migraines.

The longing for a close personal connection very often can be misinterpreted as desire for food. Satiety replaces emotional connection and a sense of belonging. Plus, loneliness affects sleeping habits. It can cause people to spend more time in bed, further keeping them away from opportunities to engage with other people. Or, it can cause insomnia. The lack of sleep reduces energy and, again, the desire to interact socially with others.

Those without family, friends, or a supportive community now are especially affected. COVID-19 patients are required to enter the hospital alone without their family. They lack the very much needed support that comes from a warm hug or a tight hand squeeze. They are suffering on an emotional level as much as on a physical level due to that loneliness.

Let’s remember that we may be lonely, but we are not deserted. We are the lucky ones. We can communicate digitally. If this pandemic would have happened three decades ago, we would have been more isolated. We must acknowledge and be thankful for that.

We are also coming together as a community. There are people sewing masks to donate to hospitals. Those of us with a surplus of masks and gloves have donated to local healthcare efforts. Our most important role in all of this moving forward is to remain apart physically from everyone else. Stay apart and save lives.

Since dentists are used to being lonely, this sensation feels like old news. But our loneliness may be getting compounded. Interacting with our quarantined team is one way to combat the loneliness. A weekly Zoom call will do wonders, as will daily text threads.

Consider recording an encouraging video and sending it to your team members. Or, shoot a video for your patients. Listen to webinars to preserve your identity and interact with your colleagues too.

Powerless

There is no more difficult emotion to deal with than powerlessness. We are powerless over our situation, our fate, and our emotions. Powerlessness may be new to us, especially if we’re normally in a leadership role. We may be used to running an office, making clinical recommendations for patients, and supervising our teammates, but we’re powerless over the spread of the virus. We can’t find a bulletproof way of keeping our families safe. We also are powerless in what the future will bring us as practitioners, as team members, and as parents and spouses.

For many people, overcoming powerlessness is connected to finding a higher power and letting go. The higher power is the only one who decides our destiny, and we’re here on earth to act it out. Those of us who aren’t spiritual may need other guidelines to follow.

Understand that life will continue. Though there are and will continue to be obstacles in our path, there won’t be any dead ends. Trusting our instincts in making the right decisions for our family and friends will prove to be a lifesaving measure. We have used our gut and have been able to make decisions up to this point in our lives, and it has served us well. So, continue to rely on your instincts in your future decision-making.

And lastly, remind yourself that every problem has a solution. We all are problem solvers, and we always have been. The challenge right now is that we may have to wait for the answer. Accepting the uncertainly of that time will guide us to peace.

Grief and Displacement

It may be difficult to conceptualize how grief is connected to COIVD-19 if we haven’t experienced our loved ones getting ill or, in the worst case scenario, dying. However, it is important to understand that experiencing grief in our current situation is normal.

We’re mourning the perceived loss of our jobs, the future loss of our hard-earned savings, and the security that we once had in our lives. We grieve the very simple pleasures of spending time with family and friends, eating out at restaurants, and shopping at the mall. On the deepest level, we may be grieving the loss of our relatively safe, stable, and protected well-being and the fact that it may be a long time before it returns.

Grieving can be a step-wise process, and it cycles through times of great worry and coasting. It can hit us at once, separated by moments of joy, or it can linger for days, rendering us concerned. The grief we experience today may not altogether disappear once we return to our daily routines. But just like any other emotion or hardship in our past, this too shall pass.

We also may feel a sense of displacement and a loss of our professional identity. Many of us have hinged our purpose and self-worth on what we do for a living. This will be a defining time that will bring about the realization that we are more than just how we’ve attached ourselves to our careers.

In the displacement that we are feeling, we will find new anchors that will in turn provide us with a more fulfilling and wider-spread purpose. As we face displacement, we will rely more on our journey and forget about looking forward to a certain destination.

In being “laid off,” we will force ourselves into reinvention, which will in turn lead into a kind of resilience. This is the time to make a list of what defines us beyond dentistry, including what our strengths are and what activities we truly enjoy. When we return to work, looking for further definition for our purpose will bring a more balanced life. But this will take time.

Each step, announcement, and change in the crisis is completely unfamiliar to us, as it should be. It is very important to understand that normalizing and validating our emotions will take time. For some, it will be hours. For others, it will be days and weeks. We must find a way to figure out what brings us distress and avoid it at all costs.

If watching the news brings about anxiety, stop watching. If interacting on social media makes you feel the FOMO (fear of missing out) we are all experiencing, avoid it. Recognizing what brings about doubt, why our faith falters, and what causes anxiety is key in facing the unknown. Similarly, finding what brings us comfort and joy is essential in finding peace amidst this chaos. Indulge in sleeping in, watching TV, spending time with family, and walking your pets. We will never have this time again.

Proof is in the Pudding

As much as COVID-19 is a life-changing, generation-defining event, there is proof in our recent past that we have are resilient.

We ought to remember that we felt the fear and pain of our country under attack on September 11, 2001. Our nation suffered terrible grief. Restaurants and movies weren’t closed for business, but they might as well have been. Christmas of 2001 was very somber. We will never forget the sorrow or pain, but we have to remember that we did recover and have become stronger.

In 2008, during one of the greatest recessions in American history, many people lost their retirement funds. Individuals, small businesses, and corporations all suffered. Unemployment spiked. Streets once lively with business were suddenly bare. As practice owners, we lost income savings and even faith the system. And though we haven’t forgotten those fears, we survived and recovered.

These trying times prepared us for what is happening now and what is about to hit us. We are more equipped and resilient than we think. And if we are going to survive, we must separate and validate our emotions.

My Own Experience

Before COVID-19 hit, I went on a spending spree. I bought a pair of cool sneakers I didn’t need and hit up a boutique shop way beyond my means. I asked my husband for an expensive bag for our wedding anniversary, and I spent a fraction of my daughter’s Catholic school tuition on multiple shows of Hamilton. At the time, those experiences brought me much joy.

Looking at the price tag on the pants I got at that boutique, unpacking the new bag (which I can’t bring anywhere), and keeping my new sneakers dust-free has made me realize that none of these things matter. I would be the same person right now if I hadn’t spent that money. On the other hand, those experiences mean everything.

When I bought those pants, I had a wonderful time with my girlfriends shopping. I felt the very much needed inclusion of being a part of that group of friends. The bag my husband bought is a reminder that he and I have worked hard enough and put away enough money to allow for a splurge like that. The bag is a reminder of our wedding day, the happiest day of my life. The sneakers remind me of my early morning workouts and an incredibly talented group of trainers who have helped me over the years to reach my fitness goals. Today, when I turn on Hamilton, the music heals me. My 9-year-old daughter was lucky enough to experience that show with me, and it was one of the greatest joys of my life.

These things are a reminder of experiences that I hold so dear and memories that I look forward to recreating. And with this new perspective, I realize, I don’t regret a thing. I’m experiencing a yin-yang muddle of emotions. All of these things don’t mean a thing, and they mean everything, all at once. I imagine you’re all feeling something similar.

The Good News

The good news is that as dentists, we excel at solving problems. We know how to be resourceful and creative. Planning for returning to work will require these talents. Once it’s time to return to work, we will go back refreshed and thirsty for interactions with both our patients and our team members.

Our values and our missions will have been redefined—maybe more focused than ever before. We will return more resilient. We will appreciate what we’ve been missing the last couple of months. If it took a virus to show us that we are in this world together, so be it. We will reemerge the most human and alive we’d ever been.

Perhaps we’ll be reminded of all the things we’ve taken for granted. In this crisis, we will notice what and who is most important, as well as what we already have. We’ve traded personal freedom for the well-being of our neighbors. We have let go of our materialistic tendencies. We will come to appreciate nature, take our kids on bike rides, and walk our dogs multiple times each day. We will learn to be still, both in our mind and in our bodies.

And, we will remember these sacrifices once the virus is no longer in the headlines. My guess is that COVID-19 has brought us an important lesson, and I’m certain we are all ready to listen.

Dr. Augustyn is a practicing general dentist. She earned a DDS from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also has completed the course sequence with the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. She completes a minimum of 30 hours of continuing education each year as well, including orthodontics, implantology, periodontics, prosthodontics, and cosmetics. Additionally, she is a moderator on the Dental Nachos and I Love Dentistry Facebook group forums. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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