Mindfulness for dentists

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mindfulness for dentists
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Life as a dentist can be busy and stressful. Mindfulness is a compelling antidote that calms the mind and boosts your energy levels. By Angela Tufvesson

Dr Vicky Prokopiou discovered mindfulness and meditation during one of the busiest times in her personal and professional life. “I had a rural practice, two toddlers and I was pregnant,” she says. “I was very blessed because we were very busy in the practice, but I was guilty of overworking and I was very burnt out. I had forgotten myself.” 

She started to think deeply about what she needed to be happy and fulfilled at home and work. “That’s what made me start to look into meditation and mindfulness and think about how I could incorporate them into my life,” Dr Prokopiou says. 

Fast forward four years and Dr Prokopiou practises meditation, mindfulness and gratitude “every single day, 100 per cent. It’s about blocking out five to 10 minutes without interruption. Sometimes I’m in one of the spare surgeries, or on the weekend I’ll go to the beach. I love the beach,” she says.   

The 13-year dental veteran is back in Sydney running her practice, iDental Surgery, in inner-city Newtown, where she shares what she’s learned with anxious clients and her team. Low lighting and soft music create a calming environment, and staff are encouraged to spend a few minutes meditating each day. Sometimes the team do a yoga or painting class together. 

“Being back in the city, I’ve noticed there’s more stress and pressure,” says Dr Prokopiou, who also runs Above It, a coaching service for health professionals. “As dentists, we’re doing surgeries and it’s intense. Then we get home, and we’ve got kids and families and partners. We’re overworked and we don’t have time for anything. 

“Incorporating mindfulness and meditation into the practice has been integral for us as it helps to create a healthy work environment.”

Better concentration and more energy

A Buddhist tradition dating back 2500 years, mindfulness is a technique that focuses your attention on the present moment without judgement. Instead of thinking ahead to a full day’s schedule of appointments or fretting over an interaction with a client last week, you’re paying attention to the present moment by noticing what you’re thinking, feeling or experiencing. Crucially, you’re not judging your thoughts or feelings, or trying to control them.

“It’s really about having sustained present moment awareness,” says Megan Layton, director of Simply Mindful, a Canberra-based organisation teaching mindfulness and meditation programs, and a mental health social worker. 

“For most western adults, and probably increasingly other populations as well, the ability to be present for any sustained period is really underdeveloped because we’re actively being trained by our environments to be very distractible.”

A vast body of evidence supports a substantial inventory of health benefits. Mindfulness and meditation can reduce insomnia, strengthen the immune system, lower high blood pressure, increase energy levels and reduce the risk of burnout. Because you’re more aware of negative feelings, you can act earlier to prevent them getting worse, which reduces stress and anxiety. 

Ample research also shows mindfulness helps to preserve the part of the brain responsible for thinking and improve learning, attention, concentration and memory. 

For busy dentists, substantial gains lie in the ability to better regulate emotions and gain more energy, says Dianne Lee, a telephone counsellor at Dental Practitioner Support, a national support service for dental practitioners.

“Dentists are really pressured. The work is full-on and there’s a lot going on. Meditation and mindfulness aren’t going to solve all your problems, but they are going to give you space and time to work through the challenges that will arise, and give you more energy to do that,” says Lee, who has been meditating for 50 years and says the practice changed her life for the better.  

Paradoxically, Layton says, learning to “just be” helps dentists engage more constructively and energetically with the demands of professional life. “It wakes us up and it rests us. And then it helps us to be more present, alert and awake in a way that doesn’t sap our energy so much in everyday life,” she says.

“Mindfulness gives life back to you in ways that are really, really valuable and probably can’t be quantified.”

How to meditate

It can be tempting to dismiss mindfulness because of a perceived lack of time, but the benefits can be gained through small investments. You can be mindful when you’re doing activities like walking, running, cooking or eating. “As long as you can get out of your head and focus on the present moment, that’s mindfulness,” Lee says.

Or you might engage in more formal practice where you set aside time to hone the craft. This is meditation, explains Layton. “If I sit down on a chair and say, ‘I’m going to do mindfulness meditation practice’, that’s meditation. It’s like training or going to the gym—and it takes practice.”

Lee recommends guided meditations by Headspace, Mindful and The Mindful Movement. She says 15 to 20 minutes a day is ideal, but as little as five to 10 minutes is enough to reap the benefits. “It’s usually better if you can do it in the morning, but that doesn’t suit everyone,” she says. 

In between clients, she recommends a 16-second mindful breathing technique that even the busiest dentist has time for. “Breathe in to the count of four, hold to the count of four, breathe out to the count of four, and wait for the count of four,” Lee says. “I do that a few times a day and it seems to make a huge difference.”  

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