Beyond Practice Management: High anxiety

2009 08 19 10 27 14 220 Don Deems 70

Tom called me, more than a little concerned about the anxiety he had been feeling for years each day he went to his dental practice. I wonder what will happen today. Will someone get upset with my dental care of him or her? Will I get a letter in the mail from someone suing me or reporting me to the board? What's going to go wrong today?

For those of us who have practiced more than a few years, those thoughts can enter our mind, especially if we've been sensitized to them by a lawsuit, complaint, or other threats to our license and/or livelihood. We do live in a world where our actions are scrutinized and measured in millimeters, where the art of dentistry is often confused with hard science, and emotions, communication, relationships, and the complexity of life swirl around us endlessly.

Moreover, most of us practice alone and feel as though we have no one who understands us -- our feelings, concerns, issues, frustrations, and fears. Last time I checked, we're all human, yet we're often the targets for many things that in the scope of life mean so little, yet to us as dentists have so many consequences.

How does one navigate this perilous journey of being a dentist and still maintain a sense of well-being?

For some, an underlying anxiety disorder doesn't appear until we've been under the stress and strain of our practice for several years. It may be sudden, showing up as panic attacks, or subtle, as in a decreased satisfaction with what we do or frustration in our work. Many times, symptoms of depression also will start to appear with the anxiety.

For others, there was never an anxiety issue but rather an event -- something that happened to us we weren't expecting that caused us a great deal of emotional upset. And for whatever reason, we're not able to let it go; we're unable to move on as we were before the event.

Why is this so important, and what does this have to do with our practices?

Although I believe this is obvious, it affects the passion in our life's work; it affects our productivity; it affects our team; it affects our relationships with our family, our patients, and others; it contributes to a sense that we're "less than"; it affects our confidence in being able to provide the care we were trained to provide; and worse, it can start thoughts of leaving our profession.

Some of us are lucky enough to be able to let these things go without a lot of strain and turmoil; we accept the risks that working with people bring us, and we do our best to keep a positive attitude.

Most are not so lucky.

If these words are speaking to you, I have some important suggestions for you to consider and act upon:

  1. See a professional if you're having high levels of anxiety. You're not weak, and there's nothing wrong with you. You just need some assistance, just like someone who comes to you for assistance with his or her oral health. This can be a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Only you know your true level of anxiety. If it's not interfering with your life, perhaps a coach would be a good choice.

  2. Take action on your feelings. Nothing changes without you taking action. Consider taking charge of your emotions and involving yourself in things that promote a healthy emotional life. These things include healthy, supportive relationships; a few good friends who will really listen to you; a daily action that nurtures your soul. Some prefer to listen to CDs that can provide daily affirmations or help us let go of those life-robbing feelings we struggle with. Find something you can do on a daily -- or at least regular -- basis that will help you.

  3. Develop the skill of asking really good questions. Why? Most of our anxiety and fear comes about because of the chatter in our own head. We fear the worst. It's best to ask about something that concerns you or may concern you, or anything that may concern the person you're working with. The right conversation can solve anything, so learn how to ask good, open-ended, clarifying questions, and listen closely with your whole being.

  4. Have GREAT conversations with your patients. Despite having a consent form for any and every procedure you may do in your practice, that won't stop the person from taking action against you. Our malpractice insurance companies want us to have consent forms for everything, and our legal community licks their chops if you don't have a consent form. What will a consent form really do? It's true intent is to signify that you've had an open conversation and that there's an agreement about what might or might not happen. The key word is conversation.

  5. Spend thoughtful time evaluating what you do in your practice (and perhaps your life) that causes you anxiety. If you "put out your catcher's mitt," you'll undoubtedly catch a lot of stuff you don't want. Be selective about what you involve yourself in. Life is short; love it.

You see, taking the culturally approved approach of stuffing our feelings and "tightening our belt" does no one any good, and doing that for the long term has less-than-desirable consequences in our life, our practice, and the people we serve. We can only be present to hear what our patients are saying if we have the reserve within us to be able to truly care for those in our lives.

Dr. Deems is a professional personal and business coach to dentists and their teams and is a practicing dentist. Since 2005, he has been named to Dentistry Today's Top Leaders in Continuing Education and is the author of several books, the most recent titled The Dentist's Coach: Build a Vibrant Practice and the Life You Want. He can be reached at or at 501-413-1101.

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