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Strategies for Dealing Constructively with Stress during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant distress for the public and placed pressure on health care professionals, including dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants, as they work to provide services and contain the disease.

Adapting to different workspaces and schedules, getting used to the new personal protective equipment needed to perform dental care and facing uncertainty about the future are some factors contributing to work-related stress among dental professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Managing a dental practice or providing dental care during the pandemic can lead to stress, anxiety, fear and other strong emotions. How dental professionals cope with these emotions can affect their well-being, the care they give to patients on the job and the well-being of the people they care about outside of work.

Though the nature of each person’s situation is unique, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how people meet their daily needs, how they interact socially and whether, how, and where they work. Over the long term, the American Psychological Association warns that the negative mental health effects of the coronavirus will be serious and long-lasting.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that dental professionals recognize what stress looks like, take steps to build their resilience to cope with stress and know where to go if they need help.

Coping with job stress and building resilience

What if returning to work does not look like what you expected? In an American Dental Association (ADA) webinar recorded in May 2020, a panel of three dentists from the ADA Dentist Wellness Advisory Committee address the emotions surrounding the most common fears and stressors that dentists have reported experiencing before, during and after reopening their practices.

The webinar, “Emotional Impact: Dealing Constructively with Stress in the Midst of COVID-19,” features a Q&A session moderated by Jane Walter, M.Ed., LPC, director of the Georgia Dental Recovery Network, a program of the Georgia Dental Association.

Drs. J. William “Bill” Claytor, Jr., Alan Budd, and Curtis E. Vixie offer strategies on what dental professionals can do in the short term to mitigate some of the emotions around these long-term concerns and uncertainties.

  • Engage dentists with dentists. Be open to each other. “Talk to a new dentist in town. Talk about human matters, not clinical matters,” says Dr. Claytor. Whether you connect via technology or by joining in an appropriately socially-distanced walk or bike ride, sharing your thoughts with your colleagues is a healthy step.

  • Recognize and address stress reactions. Keep in mind that it is normal to feel stress in reaction to returning to work during the pandemic. Dr. Vixie states that you should not try to manage or take ownership of another person’s fear, worry or anxiety. Instead, focus on managing what you can control, which is the health of your patients, your staff, your team and yourself.

  • Communicate as a leader. Know your role as the leader of the dental team and keep your emotions in check. Dr. Vixie suggests focusing on communicating to patients so they have the freedom (control) to decide if they want to proceed with their visit.

  • Avoid isolating. Infectious outbreaks can isolate people in fear and anxiety. Dr. Claytor encourages dentists to not self-isolate because “social isolation, or isolation in general, can lead to depressive episodes.”

  • Take care of yourself. Although taking care of patients, colleagues, friends and family can be a stress reliever, it should be balanced with care for yourself. According to Dr. Claytor, “we are human beings, not human doings.” Ms. Walter adds, “Be mindful of habits.”

Overall, solutions are found in communicating, asking for help and not isolating. “Structure regulates emotions,” says Dr. Claytor. To mitigate uncertainty, he suggests dentists create structure, develop a purpose, stick to a routine and strengthen social connections.

Knowing when and where to turn for help

An outbreak can affect mental health and may lead to psychosocial problems comparable to experiencing traumatic incidents, according to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lack of motivation, trouble sleeping or concentrating as well as feeling tired, overwhelmed, burned out, sad and even depressed are not uncommon. If left unaddressed, experiencing such stress can lead one to engage in maladaptive coping (such as the increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs or engaging in other unhealthy behaviors), indicate NIOSH researchers.

“Taking care of yourself and encouraging others to practice self-care sustains the ability to care for those in need,” according to a resource on sustaining the well-being of health care personnel during coronavirus and other infectious disease outbreaks from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, Department of Psychiatry, Uniformed Services University.

Consider taking the following measures to get additional support.   

  • See a professional. If you need to talk to someone, reach out to your physician or dental school health clinic to connect you with a licensed therapist, counselor or psychologist in your area. You can also check your insurance company’s list of in-network providers. Your policy may cover some mental health services. Many insurers are expanding telehealth benefits in response to the pandemic.

  • Receive confidential support from your state’s well-being program. The ADA Dentist Health and Wellness Program, along with State Dentist Well-Being Programs, are composed of dentists and dental team members who are concerned about the health and wellbeing of their peers. “We talk to them when they call us on the phone,” says Dr. Vixie.

The ADA Center for Professional Success offers practice management resources to help dentists learn coping strategies to minimize the effects of stress. To learn more about dealing with the stressors after reopening your practice visit ADA.org/Wellness for COVID-19 Mental Health Resources.

This article is provided by the ADA Center for Professional Success. The Center provides practice management content and decision support tools with the goal of helping members practice successfully, learn conveniently and live well. Visit the Center at Success.ADA.org.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide legal advice. Dental practices that require legal advice should consult an attorney licensed to practice in their jurisdictions.