Ben Bernsein, PhD, Performance Psychologist



I was listening to a seasoned dentist,“Hal”, tell me the story of how he became an alcoholic. “It started when I got out of dental school. I was newly married, our first child was on the way, and I borrowed a lot of money to build a small office for my practice.” To “ease the stress” Hal started drinking: at first casual cocktails to relax after his strenuous workdays, then he added “a couple of drinks” at lunch, and, as he continued to slide down the slippery slope, shots between patients.


The many stresses of dentistry

While dental schools turn out newly minted dentists who can expertly cut teeth, dental training does not —and cannot —adequately prepare graduates for the pressures of running a business, meeting payroll deadlines, managing a diverse staff, keeping to a tight, relentless schedule, and of dealing, every day, hour by hour, with the psycho-emotional complexities of patients, of all ages and cultural backgrounds, who lay in the chair, often petrified of feeling pain. This isn’t my singular observation. Much research, worldwide, backs this up.  The statistics of dentists who end up committing suicide speak for themselves.


While most dentists are familiar with the effects of stress (high blood pressure, chronic physical pain, irritability, fatigue, and burnout), a deeper understanding of how stress affects performance, what stress is, and how to reduce it, can be particularly effective in dealing with the many stresses of dentistry and mitigating their long term effects.


Stress and performance

The relationship between stress and performance is a bell curve.  At the tails of the curve — too little or too much stress — performance is compromised. At the peak of the curve is just the right amount of stress which is needed for optimal performance,


Most dentists tend towards “adjusting” to increasingly higher levels of stress. This usually leads to harmful physical and psycho-emotional effects. To mitigate these effects some dentists (like many others in high-stress occupations) seek quick relief through drinking, drug taking, gambling, and sex. The repetitive, short-term “fix” can quickly turn into an addiction that leads, sooner or later, to disastrous personal and professional consequences..


A new definition of stress

Most dentists define stress as difficult patients, staff issues, tight scheduling, insurance problems, and equipment malfunction. While all of these are stress-provoking, they are not, in themselves, stressful. They are simply the many everyday issues that crop up in the life of a dentist. Stress arises from your reaction to these issues: especially when you don’t like what’s happening. When things are not going the way you want you get angry or frustrated.  This kind of reaction is actually the cause of your stress.


Acceptance is the key to reducing your stress.

To reduce your stress you need to accept what is happening. Note that “accept” doesn’t mean like or love. It simply means receiving what’s happening as it is. When you can’t change something in the moment getting angry because it’s not the way you want it to be, turns on your sympathetic nervous system and wears you out. Accepting is related to the parasympathetic system, which calms you down and enables you to see the big picture,


Add the three tools for calming down

Dialing into your parasympathetic system is greatly enhanced by using the three tools for staying calm:  breathing, grounding, and sensing. I am struck by how often dentists, during a procedure, hold their breath, which immediately switches on the fight-or-flight response. The next time a moment of tension arises breathe deeply down to your belly, and ground yourself in the present by feeling your feet on the floor and releasing physical tension throughout your body. Make sure to relax your eyes from time-to-time. The central vision, which you are using when looking into a person’s mouth,  is hard-wired to the sympathetic nervous system. Momentary pauses in a procedure give you the opportunity to look away, relax your eyes, and switch on your parasympathetic system.


You can control your stress by following these guidelines. Much more productive than letting your stress control you.


© 2024  Ben Bernstein, Ph.D

Dr. Ben Bernstein, also known as “The Stress Doctor”, is a Performance Psychologist and an international speaker and workshop leader working with dentists, dental specialists and dental teams.

Related Articles