There’s never been a better time to focus on things we can control: our mental and physical health, for example. The first question I ask every single patient right now is this: “What are you most excited about?”
Upon asking, I’m usually met with a puzzled look or dismissive remark, but I remain steadfast until I receive a satisfactory answer. It may be irritating and may seem irrelevant to a dental appointment, but this question consistently leads to a shift in energy in the room. I’ve been asking this consistently for over three months, and I cannot tell you how many times I have been thanked for the unexpected, refreshing conversation, especially among those who dread seeing the dentist (or even leaving the house). Additionally, a little conversation tends to boost my energy and keeps me focused on what’s going well instead of what’s wrong.
Our attention is our most valuable currency. What we focus our attention on is the result of a sort of psychological practice; that is to say, it is a behavior that gets repeated, and naturally we get good at whatever we practice the most.
We have evolved to be adept at scanning for problems, and we unconsciously reinforce this survival behavior by creating elaborate narratives that cause us to overreact.
On some level, we have conditioned ourselves to be perfectionists in order to become successful dentists. However, a side effect of holding ourselves to the highest standard is that when external outcomes don’t meet that standard, they are likely met with anger, frustration, disappointment, and/or a similar state of unease. It’s easy to attribute our success to perfectionism and thus depend on it, but I have consistently witnessed true success (joy and fulfillment) in clinicians who have unlearned perfectionism. More specifically, from clinicians who have learned to listen to their bodies and their desires.
I used to believe that almost everyone could benefit from more exercise, but I now recognize that self-awareness is far more imperative. What is your predominant internal dialogue? Are you more driven by “I should . . . I have to . . .” or by “I get to . . . I’m so grateful/excited to . . .”?
Since the onset of COVID-19, my fiancée and I have hosted several virtual yoga retreats for dentists. Almost every registrant claimed to have a healthy lifestyle, but after a weekend of deep introspective assessment, most discovered that they were actually burning themselves out. And these are the healthy dentists!
The more we heal ourselves, the more capacity we have to heal others.
Here’s why this is so imperative: A constant state of unease (constantly reacting to your environment) is the source of chronic stress, and when perpetuated this leads to chronic disease. Being constantly stressed is exhausting; it deregulates every aspect of the body’s vital recovery (digestion, repair, rest, reproduction, etc.). Eating healthier and exercising more isn’t the best solution if it feels like an additional punishment in your already overwhelming life. No matter how healthy you might think you are, if you’re constantly running on the narrative of, “I have to be/do/have more,” you’re likely putting chronic stress on your body. Take it from me, this behavior will lead to chronic disease.
Last November I was unofficially diagnosed with bronchopneumonia (based on a FaceTime with my family physician). For two weeks I was barely able to breathe, and I felt like I was going to cough my lungs out through my mouth. It was one of the most grueling experiences I’ve ever endured, and one of my greatest teachers.
Leading up to that experience, I had pushed myself way beyond my limitations: I was teaching four weekly yoga classes while training in the boxing ring twice a week, my dental practice was at its busiest, and my fiancée and I were preparing our first NamaSlay Dentistry four-hour CE workshop. I was sleeping poorly, caffeinating aggressively, challenging my body physically, and constantly rushing from one thing to the next. When I finally arrived to teach a four-hour workshop to dentists on managing stress and anxiety, I had never been more stressed (oh, the irony). To top it off, we decided to go out to drink and celebrate the success of the workshop afterward. When I woke up the following morning, I had a cough and fever, and my first thought was, “I’m not going to let this stop me,” so I doubled my already aggressive caffeine intake, loaded up on DayQuil, and went on to teach my morning yoga class, then rushed to the office to battle an overbooked schedule (back when it felt expected for high-achievers to go to work even when sick).
I remember getting home late that evening and falling straight into my bed; then, the next morning, I felt the worst I had ever felt in my entire life. For an entire week I was barely able to move from my bedroom to my bathroom, and yet I still remember incessantly arguing with my body internally, “I’m healthy and strong. I shouldn’t be this sick! What would people think if they knew ‘the Dentalyogi’ was really sick? Why is this happening to me? I need to sweat this out . . .” All of these thoughts only put further stress on my body until I finally grew so tired that I stopped caring. That was when the illness transformed into a sort of medicine. The prescribed inhaler and antibiotics helped suppress my cough enough for me to finally rest, and I slept for an entire week.
The rest not only allowed my body to recover, but it also gave me enough clarity to realize that I had been so focused on my goals that I had forgotten how to listen to my body. For years my body had been whispering to me to slow down; it should come as no surprise that it finally resorted to screaming it.
After two weeks of being out of the office, I was surprised to discover that my entire world was not completely shattered. Right away I modified my work and sleep schedule and altered my morning routine to begin with meditation (sitting still and simply listening and breathing).
In retrospect, this illness was a great blessing that came at the perfect time. When COVID hit a few months later, I felt called to impart the lessons I had learned the hard way, and they helped many other dentists overcome similar withdrawal symptoms of overdoing and relearn how to listen to their own bodies.
Even during an unprecedented quarantine, it was easy for many to feel chronically stressed—more evidence of the insidious power of our internal narrative. Now more than ever, chronic stress is devastatingly apparent. Between fighting to keep our businesses alive by struggling to adapt and make sense of COVID and managing the chaos of current events, it’s becoming exponentially more difficult to rest and nourish the cells of our bodies. And when cells are constantly exposed to inflammatory markers, they mutate, lose function, and/or die. As above, so below.
Tony Robbins says it best: “Your biggest problem is that you think you shouldn’t have problems. Problems are what make us grow. Problems are what sculpt our soul. Problems are what make us become more.”
The World Health Organization ranks chronic diseases as the greatest threat to human health. “Worldwide three of every five people die due to chronic inflammatory diseases like stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes.”1 What if the greatest enemy isn’t COVID-19, but our state of mind? What if we shift our attention from what we cannot control to what we certainly can?
Tony Robbins says it best: “Your biggest problem is that you think you shouldn’t have problems. Problems are what make us grow. Problems are what sculpt our soul. Problems are what make us become more.”2
As health-care clinicians, we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves and “do no harm” to our patients. Take time for yourself to shift the focus from fixing problems to listening, connecting, and helping to heal problems at the underlying source. The more we listen to and nurture our bodies, the more energy and clarity we have to offer. The more we heal ourselves, the more capacity we have to heal others. It begins with examining internal narratives and flipping them to our advantage. Let’s practice and get good at placing our attention on what’s important.
So, what are you most excited about?
- The global burden of chronic. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/2_background/en/
- Tony Robbins quotes. Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7890910-i-am-not-your-guru-inspirational-quotes-1-most-people