By Molly Pereira, CDA Interim Executive Director
From the Summer 2022 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association
This weekend my daughter sat me down on the couch. She sat on the ottoman across from me with her Chromebook from school and proceeded to make a presentation to me about what causes stress, what stress does and how to avoid excessive stress. She’s nine years old.
She started out by saying, “I’ve been putting some facts together for you.” And then she went into full-on teacher mode—glancing at her notes, looking up to make eye contact, emphasizing key words and bringing in overly theatrical hand gestures. My attention was captured, and her every point actually resonated with me.
If you haven’t seen my daughter before at a meeting or a dental function, she is the definition of a mini-me in appearance. The gene pool must have been small; she looks identical to me but is 50 inches tall without worry wrinkles between her eyebrows. She has an empathetic heart, thinks independently (sometimes too independently), oozes creativity and prides herself on being weird. I was being lectured to by a younger version of myself with greater self-confidence and conviction.
Obviously, stress can occur for a multitude of reasons. It can be brought on by a sudden life change, an unexpected circumstance or surprise news—these are things out of our control. Stress can also be brought on by excessive workload, overcommitment, determination, caring for others and worry about things that may or may not exist—these are things within our control. It was this latter form of stress that I was being lectured on. Here’s what she presented to me, in summary.
Some stress is ok, healthy and can make you stronger but too much stress can make you forget things, make it hard to concentrate, make you tired all the time, and make you sad, overwhelmed, and impatient. If any of these things are happening to you, you need to decrease your stress! Being happy is better than being stressed!
There were also slides on her computer and a decent amount of pointing. When she was finished, she didn’t make a plea, ask for questions or even wait for a life changing commitment out of me; she just closed her Chromebook and walked away satisfied, like she had just closed a deal.
I would be willing to bet that I’m not the only person who probably needs this lecture. I also think it’s safe to say that many of us have spent these last years dealing with stressors well beyond our control: health diagnoses, unexpected death, sudden illness, friendship strain or disconnect and colleague/employee vacancies. These are things that we’ve gotten over, still stew on or become apathetic.
The stress I want to address in this article is the kind that we all complain about, but we create for ourselves. I’m talking about the stress that comes with the personality traits of: “hard working, self-starter, can-do attitude, multi-tasker, never says no, finds extra time in the day, always gets the job done…” Are these familiar to you? Probably. Are these bad traits to have? No, not at all. Do these impressive traits come with consequences? They certainly can—especially when triggered by one or more of the “beyond our control stressors” mentioned above.
I’m tired of talking about, reading about and learning about COVID. Really tired. But…for the purpose of this next example, I’m going to bring it up one last time because I believe that we’re all still suffering in one way or another. See if this sounds familiar. You’re living everyday life, which is manageably busy. You have it under control (most days) and you probably even exercise and eat your vegetables daily. Then COVID hits, which is out of your control, and that triggers practice closures, financial strain, health worries and life adjustments. You hobble past these items beyond your control and focus on caring for your family, your staff, your patients and your practice. Then, one of your employees leave, so you pick up her responsibilities and absorb that as normal. Next, one of your team members experiences a sudden illness and needs to cut back on hours and decrease responsibilities. You, of course, compassionately do anything to help and oversee those responsibilities too. If you have kids, everything at school is hit or miss at this time and most clubs and extracurricular activities are cancelled, so you need to adjust your schedule to accommodate that and decide to work a few nights per week to make up for lost office hours. Now it’s time for a big upgrade at the office (the deadlines for e-prescribing and rectangular collimators are on the horizon, among other things) but you don’t have time to deal with that during the day, so you work on it once the kids go to bed each night and on weekends. You’re tired, but things are still getting done (slower than you would like) and everyone is taken care of most days. You stopped going to the gym because it closed and you never got back into it and sometimes you don’t have the ambition to go to the grocery store on weekends, so you get whatever is convenient. Lack of sleep, poor eating and the never-ending grind are causing you to forget things and get run down. Then one night, after 9 p.m. when you have time to yourself, you take stock of your life at this point. Somehow, in the blink of an eye, you now work three or more evenings a week and sometimes a weekend day; you also work the jobs of at least 2.5 FTE and you use what little free time you have to attempt to re-charge. You’re stuck, you’re in too deep and the level of self-care that you need is well beyond a day at the spa.
While this “lifestyle” was triggered by the uncontrollable, it was your ambition, empathy and drive that framed your stress level where it is now. How much longer do you have until the uncontrollable happens to you, forcing you to stop? How long until you get sick or neglect a relationship to a damaging level or wake up and realize how much time has passed without your acknowledgement?
It might not seem like it but the stress that propelled you to where you are now is actually controllable. It is due to many personal decisions, right or wrong, that have gotten out of hand and are now accepted as normal.
Nothing about burning the candle at both ends is normal or sustaining, but you are the only one who can make the decision to control that. Your family can tell you to stop, your body can tell you to stop, or a medical professional can tell you to stop—but listening and acting on this plea is controlled by you. Make the decision to be a priority—one that is just as important as those currently topping your list. Take back the control before stress controls you.