What I did to improve my mental well-being

Health care providers have a knack for neglecting their own health. We focus on our patients, but we need care, too. Over the last four years, I learned what worked (and what didn’t) to mentally, physically and socially keep myself well. These are my tips as a senior to help you get through school and stay well.

Mental health

  1. Engage in passion projects. No one is ever “just” a dental student. You have passions and interests. Pursue them. In dental school, I took up photography and videography and made a comedy podcast with my friends. Find things that keep you passionate and drive you through the day.
  2. Dental school isn’t forever. Dental school, in the long run, is a brief four years before you begin the rest of your life. Remind yourself that it isn’t uncommon to feel stuck in one place in dentistry at times. However, keeping an end date in mind will allow you to maintain sight of the bigger picture.
  3. Make studying short. Use a Pomodoro or kitchen timer (or download an app) to break your studying into chunks. Breaking up your work into 25-minute sessions with five-minute breaks between will make studying seem more digestible. Some studies have shown we only have an attention span somewhere between 20 to 45 minutes, and I can attest! The Pomodoro technique was perfect to keep me engaged. Try it next time you study.

Physical health

  1. Stay active. For me, exercising at the gym helps to energize me for the day. I’m an early bird, so getting my blood flowing early kept me from dozing off in class. If you’re new to the gym, remember to start slowly. Begin with a jog every other day and gradually increase your routine. Your body will thank you, and you’ll feel healthier over time. If you plan on going before school, set a bedtime and alarm. Consistency is key to progress. The first week might be tough, but once you get into a routine, you’ll feel more in control of your days, your productivity and your mood.
  2. Get a gym buddy. This is particularly helpful in dental school, as your friends from home won’t understand the struggles of preparing a MOD on #14 for the first time. Another dental student can motivate you in the gym and in the preclinic. They can be your confidant because they understand what you deal with on a daily basis. If you’re wondering how to find a partner, just ask. You’ll be surprised how many people are on the verge of hitting the gym but waiting for that extra nudge to go.
  3. Maintain a good diet. A healthy body starts with a healthy diet. If you’re able to, prepare food over the weekend for healthy lunches. Dental school is draining, and the best thing to fuel you up for the week is some good grub. I found Sundays to be the best time to prepare. I searched for meal prep recipes online, shopped for ingredients in the morning and spent a lazy Sunday listening to my music and cooking food for the week. It sets a nice routine to your week and gives you time to unwind. And don’t forget: Tupperware is essential for meal prep! Also, find creative ways to mix healthy foods into your diet. Replace soda with seltzer water, pretzel sticks with carrot sticks and fresh fruit for cookie bags. You can even make shakes (there are hundreds of recipes online) to find creative, easy recipes that incorporate fruits and vegetables into your diet.

Social health

  1. Find a social support network. We’re becoming dentists because we like working with people. It’s important to not only support your patients but to surround yourself with good friends. Find a support network in dental school that you can be vulnerable with. Being surrounded by a few close people you know and trust is key in maintaining your balance as a provider. We’re in a high-performing graduate school, which means people hide their emotions and stresses, but letting that out is therapeutic. Find classmates who listen and do not judge you. Everyone is going through the same problems (even if they don’t show it), and everyone can use a listening ear.
  2. Maintain your relationships. It’s easy to get lost in the echo-chamber of preclinic, worrying about how your preps look, but having a support network away from school is essential, too. It will ground you and help you remember there’s an outside world. Sure, you’ll be in the lecture halls longer than you’ve ever been, drilling into the late hours of the evening, but there is life before dental school, and there will be life after it. If you keep in touch with friends, there can be a life during dental school, too.
  3. Schedule social time wisely. Be careful, because your outside friends will think you’re always busy if you make it seem that way! Stick to your study schedule, but make it clear when you’re free. I liked to reach out to friends on Wednesdays to make plans for the weekend. That way, I had a good idea of my schedule and there was still enough time to plan an activity.

Even if you try to implement one of these things slowly, you are taking a step toward improving your well-being. I hope you take away that everyone in dental school struggles at some point with mental, physical and social wellness, even if they don’t show it. We’ve all gone through and found ways to help ourselves, and I hope this can serve as a starting point for you, too.

~ Tom Viccaro, Rutgers ’19, Chapter Newsletter Chair

ASDA’s Wellness Month 2018 is generously supported by ADA student members insurance plans, underwritten by Great-West Financial.

Tom Viccaro

Tom Viccaro is a fourth-year student at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine.

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