Thoughts From Year One: Dealing with Stress

Kyle Smith, DDS | September 18, 2015

I can’t help but think that I am in the perfect state of mind to write about stress. Sitting in my basement avoiding the smoldering upper levels of my house induced by a broken air conditioner, I think about what was supposed to be a relaxing weekend at the lake, but which was interrupted by five “emergency” calls (one of which came in at 1 am).

Working in a four-doctor, nonprofit dental clinic, I have most certainly learned a lot about coping with stress during my first year as a dentist. It’s not the same as the stress I experienced in dental school, but rather a stress that comes from attempting to manage the care of hundreds of patients per month—a task that often times feels more like herding cats.

While patients can very readily make any situation stressful, I realize now that I was naïve to think that the day-to-day was going to be rainbows, butterflies, and Nobel prizes for ridding my entire community of dental disease. Very quickly, I was confronted with navigating insurance coverage, experiencing equipment malfunctions, dealing with flawed lab cases, asking staff repeatedly for retakes of nondiagnostic radiographs, correcting spelling in SOAP notes, and disagreeing with colleagues. And so, the idea of a utopian dental practice was quickly shattered.

By the end of my first week as a full-time dentist, the trouble had already started: I knew that my hygienist and I were going to clash and a patient had even threatened me for refusing to supply him with narcotics. While the problem with the patient was quickly remedied with a call to the local PD, the rift with my hygienist was not so easily resolved. In fact, it became apparent that our differing practice philosophies and standards of what constitutes acceptable quality of care would make a productive work relationship impossible. It took 3 months for the company to recognize my concerns as valid and take action. During those months, the thought of waking up the next morning and putting myself into that work environment was a weight that I had never experienced before.

Being stuck in this type of situation, and experiencing the anxiety and stress associated with it, was foreign to me. These feelings, combined with the day-to-day stresses, were adding up, I eventually felt like I had nowhere to turn. My office managers and colleagues attempted to help me with words of encouragement and promises of better days, but these were only words, and what I needed were tools. I made the decision to seek professional advice, and with the help of my primary physician I was advised to contact a clinical psychologist who sub-specialized in working with medical professionals.

It had never been in my nature to seek outside help for my problems. I felt it was a sign of weakness, and that my peers would judge me—I felt I had failed in some way. Just the thought of pursuing this recommended “treatment” was stressful, but I’m glad I did it. What I found was a sounding board for my thoughts and feelings. I found advice based in clinical experience and research that gave me insight into the areas of my life in which I was struggling. I realized that eliminating stress should not be my goal, as it is an impossible task. Instead, I needed to learn how to manage the stress in my life by maintaining perspective and understanding situations without becoming emotionally biased. With help, I found the tools necessary to move forward in a healthy direction.

Ultimately, to navigate the stresses inherent to life and dentistry, I have come to accept when circumstances are beyond my control and become accountable for my own responsibilities. This allows me to serve, learn, and grow as both a professional and as an individual.

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