Resilience is a personal quality that allows us to cope with and thrive in the face of adversity. It comes from the things around us like social support as well as our own psychology (optimism, creativity etc.) and things we can learn, like how to look after ourselves.
You don’t get more resilient by avoiding stress. People who are resilient have often had lots of experiences of stress – the difference is not so much in avoiding negative emotions, but learning how to balance the negative with the positive – often through successful and manageable exposure to stress which builds coping and resistance, in a similar way to how one becomes resistant to an infection.
Why is it important to me?
Resilience is important for mental health and helps us to feel good about ourselves and our work. It helps us to get on with other people and manage stressful situations. Being more resilient can help prevent ‘burnout’ which is when we feel exhausted, negative and not able to cope effectively with our work.
This is particularly important for dentists. Within dentistry, a profession where one might experience high workloads, a lack of control, isolation and responsibility, and social stressors from both clients and managers, burnout rates have been reported to be around 8% in the UK (Gorter, 2008). In this study, dentists who worked in larger teams had lower burnout scores and those who worked predominantly in the NHS showed higher levels of burnout.
Evidence has suggested that whilst dentists can be successful problem solvers (e.g. diagnosing symptoms, adapting treatments to specific patients or learning new techniques) they might struggle more with emotion-focused coping (Chapman, Chipchase, & Bretherton, 2015), often denying the impact that emotions like frustration and anxiety may have on their work.
Developing helpful ways to regulate emotions might be a particular way for dentists to build resilience.
How dentists can build resilience!
1. Noticing and expressing emotions safely
First, it’s helpful to spend time reflecting on what has gone well and what could have gone better or differently. Notice how you feel about it and what thoughts or worries might have triggered you to feel that way. This might help to stop your emotions from building up slowly and then bursting out when you least expect it.
It can be helpful to spend time writing about your experiences by keeping a journal or setting aside five minutes a day for ‘worry time’ – which is time when you are allowed to focus on your worries! This can help you to recognise what the worry is without spending all your time thinking about it.
2. ‘Building little gems’ (Chapman, Chipchase, & Bretherton, 2017)
Spend some time reflecting on small positives that you might normally overlook. This might be noting down your own strengths and things that have gone well. Or taking some time every day to note down three things you are grateful for, which can be a mix from your work or personal life.
Why not make a note every time a patient compliments your care? It may be as simple as a patient saying that your injection technique was pain-free or that the filling you did six months ago feels great. Or how about taking pride in those patients who used to get cavities but have improved their oral hygiene through your guidance? You’ll encounter these positives every day but it’s important to acknowledge them.
3. Emotion regulation
Spend time each day practising relaxation, mindfulness or breathing. There are lots of ways to do this. Some were mentioned in my last article. It’s easy to rush through life without really stopping to notice it or ourselves. You can be more mindful in your every day by taking note of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and experiences in the world around you. You can also more formally practice mindfulness using apps like Headspace to guide you through mindfulness and meditation to build attention to the moment, reduce distraction and reactivity, and aid calm and balance.
‘Pessimism’ is not just expecting things to turn out badly, but it can also make us feel powerless to make things go better.
As mentioned in my previous article, we can fall into negative patterns of thinking, but once we can notice possible unhelpful negative thoughts we can try to dispute these thoughts and make a balanced, flexible or realistic thought that considers the wider ‘evidence’ for our mind-set.
For example, when you’re stressed, it’s easy to either fully blame yourself for an issue, leading to anxiety, or blame someone else, leading to anger and frustration. A more balanced thought might help us to consider the role that different parties may have played and the changes that we can make to make things go more smoothly, as well as any wider things that might need to be considered.
There are always some things that we cannot change or cannot change at this moment.
It can be helpful to accept the difficulties that come with work and life that you cannot change – and focus on what you can do.
You don’t get more resilient by avoiding stress.
Being a dentist is hard. You have the pressure of meeting targets and managing your workload. On top of that, you will have demanding patients and there will be times where (despite your best efforts) the treatment that you provide will fail. You cannot escape this and so, rather than struggling, it can be freeing to try to accept these challenges without blaming or putting pressure on yourself.
These simple but meaningful daily habit shifts can be the building blocks to improve psychological resilience, valuably maintaining a sense of perspective when faced with hardships. Stress will always come your way, because that means you care. Be mindful in how you approach it, learn from the positives and ‘fail’ better. This might even help you to fail less!
- Chapman, H. R., Chipchase, S. Y., & Bretherton, R. (2015). Understanding emotionally relevant situations in primary dental practice. 3. Emerging narratives. British Dental Journal, 219(10), 491-496.
- Chapman, H. R. R., Chipchase, S. Y. Y., & Bretherton, R. (2017). The evaluation of a continuing professional development package for primary care dentists designed to reduce stress, build resilience and improve clinical decision-making. British Dental Journal, 223(4), 261–271.
- Gorter, R. (2008). Summary of: Occupational burnout and work engagement: A national survey of dentists in the United Kingdom – Commentary. British Dental Journal, 205(7), 383.