For myself and my fellow third-year dental students, this summer was a time of great transition from the simulation lab to clinic. We donned face shields and nervously stepped into the unknown world of patient care.
Over the past month, I’ve noticed a commonality present in my clinical experiences — the fast pace. It is the fast pace that has contributed to a consistent feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed out. These feelings can cloud my ability to think, work and learn effectively in the clinic. Much of my free time has been occupied with the question of how I can change my circumstances. How can I better adapt to my new environment and optimize my experiences in clinic, as well as improve my mental and physical well-being? For me, I found it helpful to turn to sports.
Tennis legend John McEnroe once said, “I think it’s the mark of a great player to be confident in tough situations. Things slow down, the ball seems a lot bigger and you feel like you have more time. Everything computes — you have options, but you always take the right one.” NBA superstar Stephen Curry is quoted saying, “We overload in our workouts so that the game slows down in real life. It helps you become a smarter basketball player.”
These two professional athletes ascended to the upper echelons of their respective sports, and the thread that weaves them together is pace. The most successful athletes have the ability to “slow the game down.” In their environments they can see, process and react to a situation faster than their opponents and leverage that speed to their advantage. Think of that evasive fly that you continually fail to squish. The fly is able to see and respond to your incoming hand faster than your hand can move. Now you might be asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with dentistry? And how is this going to help me overcome all the stress and anxiety that I’m feeling in clinic?
You need to start treating dentistry as a game. This doesn’t mean to make light of your oral health care delivery. Instead, frame your time in clinic to match the same principles as those of a game; it can help you improve your abilities, performance and overall well-being. To become proficient or competent at any game requires practice and repetition. It is through the practice of one’s craft that skills become solidified and confidence begins to build. When you have confidence in yourself and your abilities, you can see things more clearly — and all that translates into making better decisions and performing at a higher level.
It is through this everyday exposure that you learn more and build upon your knowledge bit by bit. Through this repetitive learning process, you’ll notice your comfort level shifting. The stress and anxiety will start to subside and give way to a more effective and enjoyable learning experience. Through practice and repetition, we’re all working to slow the game down. We’re working to process information faster and more efficiently, giving us the ability to act confidently and decisively with the best possible outcomes.
There isn’t a silver bullet to managing stress and anxiety in clinic, or any stressful environment for that matter. Stress and anxiety and the desire to improve performance comes from process. Now you may have a different process and means of coping and learning, and that’s great. At the end of the day, you have to do what works best for you. For me, I lean on the old adage “practice makes perfect.” While I may not perform my best now, I know if I keep at it, I will perform better in the future and things will start to feel a little easier.
So take a big deep breath and run back to the dispensary for that topical anesthetic you forgot — and know you’ll get everything the first time next time.
~ Benjamin Kruman, Detroit Mercy ’22