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5 things dental hygienists can do to care for their mental health

Being a dental hygienist is a stressful and challenging job, and it can take its toll both physically and mentally. Studies show that symptoms linked to depression and anxiety are common among dental hygienists.

If you’re a hygienist in 2023, chances are you’ve experienced occupational stress, and if left unchecked, stress in the workplace can ultimately lead to burnout and lasting negative consequences to your health.

Take a moment to get a closer look at why so many dental hygienists experience stress and learn five things you can do to safeguard your mental and overall wellbeing.

The dental office and you

The challenging, demanding work of a dentist’s office can affect the wellbeing of dental hygienists and other office staff. Being a dental hygienist can be an especially stressful profession because hygienists often:

  • Work in isolation in confined, small, sometimes windowless spaces
  • Deal with time constraints, long working hours, busy workloads, paperwork demands, economic challenges and other business-related pressures
  • Perform stressful procedures on a sensitive part of the body
  • Face an unfavorable public perception of dentistry in general
  • Work with patients who may loathe, fear or resent visiting the office
  • Provide care for others on a day-to-day basis and may not be as accustomed to caring for themselves

Stress in the office is often unavoidable, but the way you deal with it can ultimately improve how you feel.

Five tips to care for your mental wellbeing

Here are five things you can do to make sure you’re looking after yourself when times get stressful:

  1. Connect with others.

    During difficult times, it’s crucial to build healthy relationships and to maintain a strong social support system. Try to help build an office environment where you and others feel free to talk openly about stress-related problems. Dental hygienists are often high achievers who view reaching out for help as a sign of weakness or failure. Always remember that your colleagues could be experiencing similar issues, so openly sharing can be comforting and encouraging. If you can’t find someone at work to share your concerns with, find a family member, a friend, a therapist or someone in a dental social media group who can help give you the support you need.

  2. Take care of your body.

    Try to exercise regularly, eat well-balanced meals and get enough sleep. Limit your alcohol intake and avoid tobacco and other drugs. Yoga, meditation or tai chi classes can help train you to stay calm through focused breathing and relaxation. Without stress management, cortisol and adrenaline levels rise, which impacts the body. Making a commitment to your physical health is an important step in reducing overall stress.

  3. Arrange your schedule.

    Adjusting your schedule can have a positive effect on your level of stress. Whether you book your own appointments or someone else coordinates your schedule for you, make sure you’re allowed enough time to complete your required tasks. If time management is a consistent problem, discuss your constraints with your supervisor. Do what you can to remove exaggerated expectations, both those imposed by others and those you impose on yourself. Accept that perfection does not exist and simply do your best day by day. Focus on the things you’re able to control and change, rather than on things you can’t.

    And don’t forget to schedule time to take breaks. Allow yourself time to unwind and engage in activities you enjoy. If you can’t take a vacation every time you experience stress, think of little things you can do to treat yourself. Make time for a meal with friends, have a special movie night at home or even take a 20-minute walk around your neighborhood in the evening. Whatever you enjoy, make sure you’re making it a priority. Every day can’t be a great one, but it’s important to find time each day to take a breath, take stock of where you are and manage stress in a way that works for you.

  4. Know the signs and symptoms of excessive stress.

    Everyone experiences stress at one time or another, but there are signs and symptoms you should look out for that may indicate persistent stress is affecting your overall wellbeing. You may be experiencing too much stress if you have any of the following symptoms:

    • Excessive worry
    • Distress or impairment in social, professional or other important areas of functioning
    • Restlessness
    • Fatigue
    • Sleep disturbances
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Significant changes to mood (irritability, decreased enjoyment)
    • Somatic pain
    • Suicidal thoughts or thoughts about death and injury
  5. Know where to turn to for help.

    If stress is negatively impacting your life and work, don’t be afraid to seek out help when you need it. The following free resources can help promote wellbeing in the dental office:

    Other mental health resources include:

    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). Provides 24/7 free, confidential support for people in distress as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
    • NAMI. The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides advocacy, education, support and public awareness to individuals and families affected by mental illness.  
    • SAMHSA. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. Their resources include a helpline at 800-985-5990.

The mind, just like the mouth, requires constant care. Optimal mental health is a crucial part of your professional success and your overall well-being. Don’t neglect mental wellbeing or feel shame or stigma about needing to reach out for help.