Tips to Combat the Stress & Fatigue of Dental Hygiene

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Without a doubt, recent years have provided much information for the history books. From unexpected changes in everyday conveniences and societal norms to natural disasters and increasing costs of daily living, most everyone has felt some sort of imposition on the sense of financial security or independence. For the dental community, in particular, managing business needs while ensuring the retention of both staff and patients has been nothing short of a juggling act.

As a result, most, if not all, dental professionals have encountered both physical fatigue and mental strain. Is this the new way of life? Should the dental community accept that they must somehow get used to feeling stressed from trying to adjust to more frequent changes in practice methods, frustrated patients, and daily responsibilities?

What is the answer? Does this mean that mental and physical stress should be considered an acceptable consequence of the dental profession?

The answer is no!

We know that stress is a natural reaction of the body and the mind that occurs when changes are experienced or perceived in life.1 When short-lived, stress allows us to react more quickly to these changes, regardless of whether or not they are good or bad.2

However, when left unchecked, prolonged stress can negatively affect the body and mind, causing difficulty in decision-making and reduced efficiency of certain bodily functions and metabolic processes.

Stress can affect anyone, but dental hygienists can be particularly susceptible to difficulty managing stressful feelings due to the added pressure of maintaining a positive disposition in the patient care setting.2 While this is particularly applicable to those charged with caring for the well-being of a patient population, the stressors that hygienists encounter are unique in that time spent with patients in the treatment setting tends to last longer than most office visits within primary care.

In addition, evolving infection control protocols while continuing to work efficiently and reach production goals bring compounding feelings of stress or overwhelming fear that job stability might not be as reliable as previously thought.

The Problem with Occupational Fatigue

While some stress can be positive when associated with events such as preparing for vacation, having a child, receiving a promotion, etc. negative or unexpected events can cause stress which places the mind and body in a state of defense. When stressful feelings continue for long periods, they become chronic and begin to impact the body negatively. Anxious feelings can mimic or incite feelings of fear, sadness, frustration, and insecurity.2

This is particularly problematic for dental hygienists because health care safety practices require our full attention. Additionally, preoccupation with stressful and anxious thoughts and feelings will severely detract from the ability to remain attentive to our patients’ needs. Examples include brain fog, difficulty concentrating when giving oral health education, and adhering to safety practices such as handling syringes and scalers.

Behavioral changes can occur, as well as difficulty sleeping, irritability, and a tendency for withdrawal from others. The body can respond by developing headaches, intestinal upset, and various aches and pains.2 Consequently, many people turn to other unhealthy habits such as smoking, alcohol use, and overeating, resulting in additional unintended negative outcomes to find quick relief.2 Unfortunately, these types of remedies will create additional problems such as weight gain, increased fatigue, and even greater risks of cardiovascular illness.6

Manage Stress: Aerobic Fitness, Strength Training, and Meditation

Long-term stress causes an increase in blood sugar, blood pressure, and cortisol, which are considered to be risk factors for heart disease.4 In addition, frustration and anxiety can cause our brains to become clouded and prevent clear and rational thought processes.5

Exercise such as cardiovascular or aerobic training combats these effects by relieving tight muscles and increasing blood flow. Aerobic or cardiovascular activity, for example, uses large muscle groups, increasing blood flow throughout the body more efficiently.3 Consistency is key since regular exercise has proven to reduce the body’s physical response to stress, essentially providing protection in stressful times.4

Facilitating a consistent exercise or meditation routine can be accomplished by setting daily reminders on a calendar or with an alarm on your phone. Bedtime is typically welcome in our schedule because it is the time we rest and recover from a long day. Similarly, setting a scheduled time of day, if even just for a few minutes, can become just as anticipated for the purpose of reducing tension and frustration.5

Additionally, find a friend or sign up with an app to help keep accountability consistent. Of course, if these strategies are not enough, consider seeking advice from a mental health professional.

Not sure where to start? Here are some strategies to consider.

1) Controlled breathing exercises and meditation teaches awareness of one’s breathing and feelings of calm, peaceful thoughts.7

Meditation practice sessions can be as long or short as needed, which means they can be applied even to the busiest schedules.

Authors Brianna Majsiak and Justin Laube, MD, outlined several forms of meditative exercises of ancient origin, each teaching different breathing control methods such as Shamatha and Kundalini.7 Techniques such as slow, controlled breathing and breathing from the diaphragm, and synchronizing breathing to match the heart rate.7 With the ease of accessibility of information from smartphones, this information can be easily searched and saved in apps and other websites.

2) Physical relaxation techniques can add another layer of relaxation for physical and mental stress relief when added to breathing exercises.

Some of the most popular methods include yoga or tai chi, which are particularly useful because they can be used regardless of physical capability or limitation. The use of slow motions allows for increased focus on breathing and core strength, as well as an adequate warm-up of muscles and preventing or eliminating the risk of injury.8

Dental hygienists are notorious for acquiring neck, back, and wrist injuries from the demands of patient care. By incorporating exercises aimed at mobility training, ailments such as muscle stiffness can be greatly controlled or even resolved completely. The beauty of mobility exercises is that they can be performed between patients and during breaks. Some examples include rotational wrist movements, torso stretching, truck rotation, shoulder shrugs, and various others which target the lumbar spine and trapezius muscles.9,10 Moreover, when the body is physically relaxed and without pain, sleep occurs more easily and with fewer interruptions.8

3) Still not sure where to start?

Think about what makes you happy. When you’re stressed or exhausted, what is the first thing that comes to mind that you’d rather be doing? The key is to choose an activity that promotes feelings of calm and relaxation. Go to the beach, take a walk or a hike, listen to music, read a book, or take a nap! The beauty of eliminating stress is that the options are endless!

Everyone is built differently, with different needs, motivations, and interests. It is important to remember that stress cannot be completely avoided. However, strategies such as regular exercise, following a routine, and talking to friends and family will help us to be more prepared and equipped to bounce back from the demands of patient care and daily life.

As caregivers, we tend to put the needs of our patients ahead of our own. In order to continue in this profession, though, self-care is imperative to ensure we remain healthy, happy, and resilient.

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  1. Stress. (2022, April). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
  2. What is Stress? (2021, September 17). Mental Health Foundation.
  3. Marcin, A. (2020, February 25). What Are the Benefits of Aerobic Exercise? Healthline.
  4. Stress Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease. (n.d.). University of Rochester Medical Center.
  5. Physical Activity Reduces Stress. (2021, September 23). Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
  6. Majsiak, B., Young, C. ( 2022, June 23). 7 Ways to Practice Breath Work for Beginners. Everyday Health.
  7. 9 Benefits of Yoga. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine.
  8. Stretches to do at Work Every Day. (2020, May 5). Healthline.