The unspoken tie that unites students in all facets of continuing their education — whether they’re undergraduates, dental students, or medical students — is stress. It is like an ever-present ghost looming over our collective presence, reminding us of tasks, to-do lists, and worries. Stress levels these days are undoubtedly higher than in the past but are elevated in students pursuing higher education. From attending class all day, studying for multiple hours and participating in myriad extracurriculars, balancing dental school or undergraduate education can be challenging. It is essential to find ways to cope with and reduce stress and prevent it from tainting the otherwise exciting experience of the dental school journey.
One of the most well-known ways to reduce stress is via physical exercise. Physical activity of any sort can reduce stress, specifically among college students. The type of physical activity you choose does not matter as much as actually taking the time to do something. Some examples include lifting weights, walking nature trails, attending group classes at the campus wellness center, and playing sports with friends.
I found that becoming involved in my school’s intramural sports leagues and joining/starting several different kickball and flag football teams gave me a much-needed break from the strain of day-to-day education. If sports are fun to you, becoming involved in intramurals can provide you with something enjoyable to look forward to at the end of the day. There are physical benefits to playing sports, but there are social benefits as well. I have met and talked to several upper-year dental students through intramural sports, which has given me a community to grow in. Players can escape their isolated dental school bubbles and meet people outside of school who are also competing. Intramural sports overall provide a pleasant diversion to keep your mind off the pressures of dental school by providing an opportunity to improve and gain a sense of accomplishment in something that is both entertaining and exciting.
Isolation is the easiest way to get caught in a cycle of overthinking and feeling overwhelmed. Surrounding yourself with people is a straightforward way to introduce laughter, fun, and, most importantly, friendship into your life, which will leave less space for stress to creep in. It is easy to forget that life exists outside of dental school. Surprisingly, the best stress-reducing conversations often come by consulting with people outside of dental schools, such as family and friends. A study on support services for first-year dental students found that using outside resources was the most effective at solving several common problems related to dental students. Speaking to lifelong friends and family or anyone who has known you your whole life can help in ways that others cannot. Therefore, it is essential to remember to make it a habit to contact your support system to talk through anything you need.
Just like the body’s muscles can be trained to make them stronger, the brain is also a muscle that should not be neglected. By meditating and practicing mindfulness, you can become mentally stronger as well. Just like physical exercise, mental strength can be exercised. Along with therapy, an effective way to work on the mental aspect of stress is by meditation. Studies show that meditation decreases anxiety, improves cardiovascular health, helps control stress, and helps one achieve a more remarkable ability to relax. Think of meditation as a lifestyle change and not just a five-minute addition to your morning routine. Taking some time to close your eyes and let yourself breathe goes a long way.
Watching TV and playing video games often get a bad rap, but they still work well in dealing with stress. Watching comedies or anything with humor can help reduce stress. In a study based on stress hormone levels in the blood, laughter alone has been shown to reduce stress levels in several individuals. So watch something funny, laugh, and let the stress fade away without feeling too bad about spending time watching your favorite shows.
Even with all these stress-reducing hobbies, dental education can still feel overwhelming. Do not hesitate to seek additional help through therapy and psychiatric services if this happens to you.
The best way to deal with a day-to-day stressor such as dental education is to simply not ignore it. Instead, find something you are interested in and make time to do it. And if you feel yourself running out of time, find help and reach out. The number one thing that impressed upon me during my application and orientation to dental school by the faculty and upper-class students was that I am not alone. So let us live our best stress-free lives and take on what dental school (and life!) has in store!
~Garrison Lovett, Augusta University