Predental students, dental students and dental professionals play an enormous role in the advocacy of mental well-being among ourselves, our patients and our future colleagues. The journey to dentistry is associated with high levels of stress due to habits of perfectionism, economic pressures, the constant need for approval, overwhelming situations and patient anxiety. Therefore, our brains often require a decluttering process I like to call “mental floss.”
Mental floss can be compared to flossing our teeth or basic interdental cleaning. If we do not remove the plaque on the interproximal surfaces of our teeth and underneath our gums, this biofilm will build up and harden into calculus. Eventually, this will lead to tooth decay and gum disease.
Our brains work in a similar fashion. As we let these external factors accumulate, we allow them to cloud our judgment, relationships and even the quality of our work. It’s important to learn how to effectively use our own mental floss so that over time, these constant triggers don’t become overwhelming. When these stressors go unaddressed, the individual may opt to isolate themselves, fall into substance use, develop negative coping patterns, practice poor self-care and neglect to seek help.
Developing a strong self-care strategy and safety plan is the equivalent to flossing the teeth to eliminate interdental biofilm. An example of a self-care strategy is finding 15-30 minutes every day to get moving. This can be anything from walking, swimming, running or even dancing! Dentistry especially can take a toll on our bodies, so it’s important to build up our stamina while simultaneously investing in our health. Some other examples such as improving our self-talk, practicing meditation, mastering breathing techniques and becoming aware of our cognitive distortions can all have drastic effects on our mental health.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts that impede us from perceiving situations as they are; instead, we perceive them through a distorted way of thinking. These cognitive distortions are the bases of our negative thoughts. In many cases, addressing them with the help of a mental health professional can significantly improve one’s quality of life. Listed below are some examples of cognitive distortions from the book “Feeling Good” by psychiatrist David D. Burns, M.D., that I associate as a byproduct of stress in students and dental settings:
- Overgeneralization: Using the words “always” and “never.”
- Fortune telling: Assumptions about the future or “mind reading” can be unrealistic and hurtful to your personal image.
- Disqualifying the positive: This will amplify the constant need to be perfect and prompt unrealistic expectations and dissatisfaction with all our work.
- Negative lens/filter: Your own thoughts and negative lens on a situation can cause you to experience extra stress.
It is essential to remember that our professional colleagues, patients and coworkers are all humans just like us, and together, we can end the stigma associated with mental health by educating ourselves and learning how to identify symptoms and indirect cries for help. This permits us to be more empathetic, supportive and understanding. This allows us to be a better support system and help those around us navigate through their safety plans more effectively. It’s time to advocate for more research funding, equal access to care and educational resources for all. It’s time to end the stigma and use our mental floss.
~Anabel Alvarez, University of South Florida ’21, ASDA Predental Advisory Committee Member