by Cathy Jameson, PhD
Stress is a fact of life in business and in dentistry today. A certain amount of stress is good if controlled. But uncontrolled stress can be destructive to your individual health and well-being and can have a detrimental effect on the practice as a whole.
Uncontrolled stress can affect your mind and body in many negative ways. It can result in poor self-management through signs such as:
- Low energy
- Decreased productivity
- Lower self-image/self-esteem
- Poor decision making
- Tardiness and/or absenteeism
- Problems with personal relationships at home and at work
- Poor financial management
- Shortened longevity
The skill of stress management can be learned! Identify your own stressors - the things that cause stress for you. Remember that each person is different, so his or her response to a situation may be different. What stresses one person may not stress another.
So, the first step to stress control is to write down honestly the things that cause stress for you. This list deserves your attention. Once you become aware of what these stressors are, you can begin your stress-management program. Awareness is the first step toward growth or change.
Those who choose not to take personal responsibility for the control of stress in their lives - perhaps by blaming their job or other people or circumstances - are selecting a self-destructive route. When days get full and hectic, the thing that usually falls by the wayside is time spent for personal management: exercise, eating properly, relaxation, time with family, or time with self.
Stress left unbridled can become detrimental to one's mental and physical health. A common thread runs through the lives of most people who fall prey to the potentially devastating effects of uncontrolled stress. This thread is that most of the stress could have been tamed ... could have been controlled. Total mismanagement of stress can lead to illnesses, misery, and even death.
Uncontrolled stress can affect the mind. It can take its toll on emotional well-being, while it drains energy and vitality from you. This can lead to irritability and a quick temper. Stress can distort the way you think and feel about yourself. Stress has the ability to chip away at your own feeling of self-worth - your self-esteem. Stress can affect your relationships with others, making it difficult to relate in a constructive way to people both at work and outside of work. Stress also can drain the energy you need to participate in activities in your community.
You are responsible to yourself. You are your own manager. If you think you are special, you are! But not so special that you are immune to the risks of poor personal management. Workaholics, alcoholics, drug abusers, cigarette smokers, obese people, etc., think that problems are going to happen to someone else. Wrong! You must run your body and mind with the same expertise that you run your practice.
Ways to reduce and control stress
Dr. Robert Eliot very eloquently said, "You can become productive without being self-destructive." I completely agree. With this idea in mind, I have found 12 steps that can lead to successful stress control.
- Write individual and team goals. With your team, focus on where you are, where you are going, and how you intend to get there. Make these goals the basis of all decisions made - both personally and professionally. Set your goals high enough so that you are continuously reaching for them, but not so high that you set yourself up for constant disappointment.
When you write down a goal, design a plan of action of how you intend to accomplish it. Determine who's going to do what. Establish a time frame for the achievement of each aspect of the plan. In addition, identify resources you will need for your project. What people do you need access to? What books do you need to read? What tapes do you need to listen to? Identify barriers that might get in your way. Face those barriers and either get rid of them or alter them.
- Prioritize your goals. By prioritizing goals, you will be able to see what is most important to you and your team. The way your goals are prioritized should reflect your practice mission, vision, and purpose.
If you are making a decision about a project - a course to take, a person to hire, a system to integrate into your office, and so on - ask yourself this question: "If we do this, will it help us to reach our ultimate mission or fulfill our purpose?" If the answer is "yes," then your decision is probably a good one. Go ahead. If the answer is "no," then step back and reconsider.
Prioritizing will help you realize your "mission." You will be able to focus on the high-priority items, rather than the low-priority issues. For example, comprehensive treatment planning and thorough case presentations will make a significant difference in the practice productivity. This needs to be a high priority. If you say you don't have time to do this, then your priorities may be out of balance.
When the time comes to make a decision about your practice or your life, you will find making that decision to be easier and better if you set goals and prioritize them.
- Practice good time management. Following the above train of thought, practicing good time management is a must in today's busy world. The best time-management strategies of all, in my opinion, are the above two concepts: writing goals and then prioritizing those goals. Too many times, I have heard the complaint that someone "just doesn't have time." They don't have time for exercise, for family, to design good treatment plans, or follow up on past-due accounts, etc. If you prioritize your goals, your days, and your life, you will have time to do anything you want to do.
Here's a classic time-management strategy to apply at home and at work: At the end of your day, write down six things you need to do the next day. Then, prioritize the items on the list. Read that before you leave work or before you go to sleep. Your rest will be calmer and deeper, and you will awaken more refreshed.
Then, in the morning, review the list. Start on the top-priority item. Work on it continuously. If you get interrupted (and you will!), go back to the project and continue this pattern until the project is complete. Then, cross this item off the list and go on to the next item. Do this until your day is finished. Reconstruct the list in the same manner at the end of the day. This method is proven, powerful, and beneficial for time management and stress control!
- Exercise on a regular basis. One of the most effective ways to control stress is through regular exercise. Through exercise, the body releases tranquilizing chemicals known as endorphins to the brain. This natural chemical brings about a calming, pleasurable sensation. Exercising regularly can help increase your well-being, both physically and emotionally. The key to the success of an exercise program is not to see how exhausted you can become, but to exercise your heart on a regular basis. Walking, swimming, jogging, or bicycling are a few easy ways to create a strong, healthy body and mind.
- Practice proven re laxation techniques. It has been proven that through relaxation techniques such as meditation, visualization (visualizing a pleasant scene in your mind), or even hobbies, you can lower your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, control headaches, and even improve your body's immune mechanism.
A great way to control your physical responses to stress is with the relaxation response, developed by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University's Mind-Body Institute. Dr. Benson, in his well-known best seller The Relaxation Response, states: "The relaxation response is the inborn capacity of the body to enter a special state characterized by lowered heart rate, decreased rate of breathing, lowered blood pressure, slower brain waves, and an overall reduction of the speed of metabolism. These changes produced by the relaxation response counteract the harmful effects of uncomfortable feelings of stress." By mentally relaxing your body, even for just a few minutes, you can relieve tension, calm nerves, and bring yourself back to a pleasant and calm state, thus relieving stress. Read his book. It works!
- Feed your body properly. Have you ever heard the phrase, "You are what you eat"? I am a firm believer in that. A proper diet can give you a great increase in energy and help to keep your body filled with the vitamins and nutrients it needs. When your body feels well, your mind feels well. You will be free of illnesses and discomforts brought on by improper diet; thus, you will be free of unneeded stress.
Experts in nutrition are recommending vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements to most diets because of environmental compromises, the increased stress levels of most people today, so much eating out, and simply not getting all the needed nutrients from our food. So, consider a balanced, proven supplemental program.
- Feed your mind positively. It is so easy to wallow in negative thoughts. You must make a conscientious effort to overpower the influence of negativity. Value yourself enough to make a decision to be positive. Look for the good things in your work, in your co-workers, and in yourself, rather than looking for the bad.
In his book, The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale says, "Things become better when you expect the best instead of the worst, for the reason that being freed from self-doubt, you can put your whole self into your endeavor, and nothing can stand in the way of the man who focuses his entire self on a problem."
Wow! What an awesome statement. Peale's words are words to live by. If you live your life expecting the best and nothing less, nothing can stand in your way!
- Stimulate your creative centers with hobbies and outside activities. As I mentioned earlier, developing hobbies is a relaxation technique that has proven to reduce stress for many people. Do something you really enjoy, and do it on a regular basis. These activities can provide a creative outlet totally different from the activities of your working day. The change will reduce stress and fatigue while refreshing the creative part of your mind.
If necessary, schedule this time. Give yourself permission to be kind to yourself. Write a goal to integrate your creative activities and hobbies into your days.
- Communicate effectively. Communicative skill is the bottom line to your success and happiness. No matter what your role is in the office or at home, how well you communicate makes all the difference. Study and learn excellent communication skills that can be used more effectively to listen and to speak. Access the skill and knowledge of confrontation so that conflicts can be resolved constructively.
In my book, Great Communication = Great Production, I discuss several techniques of the art of communication. There are many facets to excellent communication. Listening skills, speaking skills, handling difficult people and situations, and understanding personality differences are just a few of these communication aspects that must be carefully developed and practiced continually.
Learn to communicate effectively with other team members and with patients. Develop these skills, and you will develop personal and professional relationships that are healthy and stress-controlled.
- Organize! Organize every aspect - every system - within your practice. Pay attention to detail. Do things right the first time. Eliminate chaos. Chaos breeds stress! Organize all 25 systems of your practice. Make sure your team members have the skills and tools to administrate those systems. Then, think consistency!
- Eliminate. Eliminate the things in your life that are not working, and focus on and give attention to the things in your life that are working. Get control of your life instead of letting your life control you. The key to surviving and thriving on stress is control. Learn to ignore what you can't control, and learn to control what you can. All of life is a matter of choice.
- Strive to achieve balance in your life - a balance between love, work, worship, and play. (Aristotle/L.D. Pankey) This is easier said than done, but the positive results make your efforts worthwhile. If you feel out of sorts, depressed, or listless, look carefully at these four areas of your life, and make an honest evaluation. You probably will find that one or another of these areas is lacking. Do what you need to do to fill the void.
You probably will never be in perfect balance, but in a constant state of working toward it. Analyze where your imbalance lies and re-establish it. Balance equals stress control.
It's your choice
Stressful situations in dentistry will never be eliminated, but they can be controlled. Developing coping strategies and learning how to deal with daily stresses are a must to prevent stress from taking a negative toll. Choose to take that potentially harmful stress and turn it into powerful energy.
Give those with whom you work your trust and confidence. Be patient, understanding, honest, and committed. Give those you love more of your time and attention. Give yourself and the people with whom you interact the benefits of effective communication skills. Give yourself rest, nutrition, exercise, relaxation, play, dreams, and goals. Give yourself a lifetime of purpose by pursuing work that you love. Give yourself a sense of challenge each and every day.
Be the person you want to be. Live the life you want to live. Make the decision today to control your stress instead of allowing stress to control you.