woman at a desk with hand on her head looking stressed

Back in May, I wrote a Spear Digest article addressing the psychological challenges dentists face. It highlighted how the stressors of dentistry and life can and will impact many dental professionals, whether we like to admit it or not.

As a profession, I believe we need to get “real” with more open and active dialogue among our peers, especially about the “compassion fatigue” many clinicians face over an extended period of helping patients without appropriately addressing their own personal or emotional challenges.

Honestly, I think that the mental challenges for dentists have increased over the years for a variety of reasons. Those include:

  • Higher post-graduation debt levels
  • More technology and materials to keep up with
  • Time management, or the lack thereof
  • Navigating the many different options on how to manage the business side of your practice
  • Insurance-related challenges like declining reimbursement rates
  • Hiring and developing qualified team members
  • The expansion of DSOs and corporate dentistry

Reading the list may stress you out. The first step in this process is the fact that we, just like our own patients, must admit there is an issue. Otherwise, just like our own patients, if there is no acknowledgement of the problem – then you cannot discover solutions.

Many of us entered dentistry because we want to help others. In many ways, dental professionals are “givers” focused on the well-being of patients. Oftentimes, our patients are stressed because they are terrified of being in our chairs, or they are concerned about the pain they’re familiar with from previous dental experiences. We attempt to calm them and create less tension.

Yet while we are being compassionate toward our patients and team members, we can find ourselves worn out at the end of the day! Then we go home and relax, right?

Well, for many of us, we have families and other responsibilities at home waiting for our time and attention, even though we may feel mentally exhausted. And for practice owners, you may find yourself doing some “office” work in the evening and feel – after finally finishing everything – that it’s merely time to go to bed and do it all over again in the morning. Sound familiar?

For many dental professionals, by the time we take care of our patients, our team members, our families and anything else, it might feel like no one is caring for us.

What is compassion fatigue?

It is also known as secondary traumatic stress, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes people will refer to compassion fatigue as “burnout” but that is slightly different than what we are discussing.

Compassion fatigue is characterized by gradual lessening of compassion over time. It affects many people in the health care industry. In fact, nurses were some of the first professionals that were recognized or diagnosed with compassion fatigue.

According to mental health experts, the signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Substance abuse
  • Poor self-care
  • A decrease in experiences of pleasure
  • Irritability
  • Hopelessness
  • Constant stress and anxiety
  • Sleeplessness or nightmares
  • Loss of compassion and empathy toward others
  • A negative attitude
  • Excessive blaming
  • Isolation from others
  • A decrease in productivity
  • Lack of focus
  • Poor job satisfaction
  • And sometimes self-doubt and incompetency

People who are overly conscientious, perfectionist and self-giving are sometimes more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. I do not know about you, but it seems that there are a lot of dental professionals that are overly conscientious, perfectionist and self-giving.

All of this can lead you to feeling like your numb to your patients’ feelings or concerns along with feeling this way toward others in your life, including your team and family members. You may also find yourself irritable and impatient because you spent your day of caring for your patients.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the struggle is real when we leave the office that has “drained” us during the day and attempt to come home to be the perfect spouse, parent, etc. If so, you may be suffering with compassion fatigue.

When we are struggling with compassion fatigue and/or burnout, like so many others, and we do not address the issue, it can lead to depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, decreased energy, or the use of food, drugs and alcohol to help your overall mood.

At its worst, left unchecked, the subsequent depression could prove destructive in your life.

How you can combat compassion fatigue

The first thing is to take care of yourself. It may sound selfish but in order to be the best for ourselves, our patients, our team, our families and everyone else, we must take care of ourselves!

Some things to consider:

  • Regular exercise helps with mental wellness, in addition to physical health
  • Reduce your overall stress levels by taking intentional steps to balance your workload by spending more time with loved ones
  • Schedule personal time for hobbies and leisure activities, again to balance work-related stress
  • Get enough sleep and monitor your sleep patterns
  • Focus on a healthier diet
  • Talk about your feelings with a mental health professional who is trained to help patients cope with stress-related conditions
  • Consider developing positive coping strategies, such as those you can discover in support groups and networks specific to caregivers, or networking with other dental professionals via continuing education and dental meetings

There are online support groups specific to compassion fatigue, as well.

It is important that we share our stories, both good and bad, and help ourselves realize that our struggles are often common.

However, it’s also imperative to have a group of dental professionals that you feel comfortable talking about mental health with on a regular basis. Otherwise, seek mentors for that type of emotional support.

Feel confident about seeking help from a therapist

Mental health professionals are trained to help “coach” you through the process and help you avoid some of the pitfalls associated with the real-life struggles that everyone, including dental professionals, face every day.

The No. 1 thing you can do is recognize that things are wearing you down and affecting you – and that’s OK. You are human, after all!

The sooner you take the first step of recognizing you are struggling with things, the sooner you can begin the process of making some meaningful changes in your life, so you can begin to HEAL and feel better.

But like all journeys in life, it all begins with the first step.

Jeff Lineberry, D.D.S., F.A.G.D., F.I.C.O.I., is an accredited member of the AACD, member of Spear Visiting Faculty and a contributor to Spear Digest.