Stress coping tips that actually work

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I’ve been stressed lately and it has been affecting my health. My stress manifests itself as headaches but I’ve worked with enough dental students to know that stress can also show up as depression, anxiety, weight loss or gain and myriad other ailments. Maybe your stress is having a mental impact on your life or maybe you feel rather happy but you’re seeing some physical signs of stress (do hair loss or upset stomach sound familiar?).

So what to do? You could Google coping mechanisms and find all kinds of tips like deep breathing, exercise and balancing social activities with work. But what if these aren’t cutting it?

For me, I had read lots of articles on stress management, but actually doing something about it is a different story. Do you stop studying for dental school just to manage your stress? The answer is yes.

Sometimes the stress is so much that you just have to step away and that’s ok! So here are my three steps for coping with an overwhelming amount of stress:

  1. Assess your stress. What is it that’s really the problem? Sometime I’ll think “everything is wrong!” But that’s not it. What the problem could be is that I’m overwhelmed by the amount of personal or professional tasks on my plate. Or maybe I’m stressed out about a specific problem and I don’t feel like I have the emotional support I need from a close friend or family member (ex: your spouse, best friend, sibling just doesn’t get how hard dental school is). Try to identify the real problem so you can better find solutions.
  2. What can I do about it today? In the next hour? In the next 5 minutes? Your plan of attack should not only be solution-based, but should also follow a timeline. It’s human nature to turn a problem over and over in our minds until we are sometimes physically ill with stress. Break this habit before it breaks you. Decide what you can do about it in the time you have today and only allow yourself to think on that part of the problem. This is called living in “day-tight compartments” and it’s a trick Dale Carnegie advocates in “How to Stop Worrying & Start Living.”
  3. Know when to walk away. This one is especially hard for me and my fellow perfectionists. You know who you are. But you have to decide just how much worry something is worth (another Carnegie principle) and give it no more. If you can learn how to do this, you’ll study more efficiently and you’ll sleep more soundly. You’ll be able to say “I’m so stressed out about my next exam” and then have dinner with an old friend and not even think about test day. You must learn this skill. Dental school is tough, but being a dentist isn’t easy either. Start practicing now.

Bonus tip: All those “stress reducing” tips have their own merits, but the trick is to use them. I’d been promising myself to make more time to read for months until one day I finally put down the work and personal e-mail on a lunch break and picked up my Kindle. Taking an hour break from all the personal and professional stress of my daily life was amazing and recuperative. How many times have you said you’ll go to yoga tomorrow? Or maybe you’ll volunteer once classes die down? Make time now–you need the extra TLC.

ASDA members, stay tuned later this year for a new wellness section on ASDAnet.org. We’re currently gathering resources and working on items specific to dental students and the daily stress they face.

What works for you to battle stress? Let us know in the comments below!

~Kim Schneider, publications manager, recovering worrier

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About Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly is the senior manager of publications at the American Student Dental Association. She works with ASDA's Editorial Board to bring you ASDA News, Mouth and this blog. If you have questions about this blog or any of ASDA's publications, you can contact her at Kim@ASDAnet.org.

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