MANAGING STRESS AS A FIRST-YEAR DENTAL STUDENT
The challenge of stress
Before I started dental school, people kept telling my wife and I the same two things. To me, they’d say something about how difficult school was going to be and then give a quick “good luck” with the stress. To my wife, it always came back around to “say goodbye to your husband for the next four years!” It felt inevitable that our lives would become a horror story. Our goal of starting a family seemed impossible.
It was around this time that I stumbled across an old poem called “The Ambulance Down in the Valley.” It tells the story of a town with a lookout point at the edge of a cliff. Tourists would come to take in the scenic view, but many had nearly died after slipping from the edge. After outcries about the cliff’s danger, an ambulance was placed in the valley to rescue fallen visitors. Life went on like this for a while until an old sage came up with a better idea: “‘Let us stop at its source all this mischief,’ cried he, ‘Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally; if the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense, with the ambulance down in the valley.’” It is better to prevent an accident, he argued, than to clean up the mess afterward.
With this message, it became apparent that the horror stories of insurmountable stress and absent loved ones were told from the perspective of the ambulance down in the valley. The reality of stressors during dental school were undeniable, of course, but there had to be something we could do to keep them from being unbearable. There had to be some way to put a fence at the top of the cliff!
We came up with some good ideas for stress-prevention, but we’ve also learned a lot over the four years and two kids since then. Every student will need to find out what works best for them, but what follows are a few things that have been game-changing “fences” for cutting stress off at the pass.
Recognize different types of stress
If you want to handle stress appropriately, it’s important to first know your enemy. Personally, I’ve come to see stress as two different flavors: productive and destructive. Productive stress is that which pushes you towards growth. There’s a saying that goes, “There’s no comfort in the growth zone and no growing in the comfort zone.” We get out of our comfort zones through productive stress and when have the ability to rise to challenges through hard work.
Destructive stress, on the other hand, inhibits growth, and it’s what we are generally talking about when we discuss stress. It’s the stress we feel when there’s no end in sight and can’t seem to see a path to completing the tasks given to us. Destructive stress creates a barrier (real or imagined) between you and success, and no amount of hard work or worry will break through it.
While many experiences in dental school easily fit into one category or the other, some fall right on the line. In these cases, focusing on what you can control helps identify what is worth your time and effort. I’ve found that overcoming stress is much simpler when I don’t worry about the things I can’t change and focus on those I can. As you go forward in dental school, focus on categorizing your stressors as either productive or destructive and watch how your ability to deal with those situations changes.
Utilize Pareto’s Principle
Pareto’s Principle, also called the “80/20” rule, is the idea that 80% of results come from 20% of causes. Long-used in fields ranging from sports to occupational safety, Pareto’s Principle can be used to determine which of your many tasks are of the highest importance. We’ve all seen this concept in action when studying “high yield” content for exams. When faced with hundreds of slides of material, deciding what to focus on is a matter of deciding which 20% of the overall concepts are going to be responsible for 80% of the test material.
Similarly, school will throw you a long list of responsibilities that all seem important. There will always be deadlines you can’t miss, projects to be completed, and things to learn. The stress comes when you convince yourself that each task is equally urgent, when in reality there is always something that needs your attention now and something that can wait.
Using Pareto’s Principle can help you whittle down your task list to the 20% of things that will give you the biggest stress relief once completed. Ask yourself, “What few things on my to-do list can I get done today that will relieve the most stress?” Getting those major stressors behind you will create an emotional environment in which the rest of your work will be infinitely more manageable.
Develop and follow systems
To stay on top of the constant workload of dental school, it is paramount that you develop productive routines and habits. Systematic workflows will be a major part of the rest of your career. Implementing systems in dental school helps establish a framework for success that you’ll carry with you throughout your life. The three systems I recommend developing first are 1) how you organize tasks, 2) how you take notes and study, and 3) how your structure your life outside of school.
Personally, my system for organizing tasks relies heavily on an application called Trello. I can keep track of what tasks need to get done based on class or category, structuring them into a checklist. The app allows you to attach pictures, emails, URLs, etc. to each task, keeping all relevant information for the task in one spot. I’ve also found that I best take notes with Microsoft’s OneNote, organizing my slides by class and lecture. I then work to memorize the high-yield content through a memory trick called the “Method of Loci,” which is outside the scope of this article but well worth your time to investigate. Finally, I make room for life outside of dental school by having structured time for studying, for being with my family, and getting done routine tasks. I sit down at the beginning of each week and make sure those times are scheduled in, then make the effort during the week to stick to that schedule.
Even following your systems, you will still find days that are more burdensome than others. There will be times you need to adjust your systems and schedule. Giving yourself this framework, however, provides you the tools necessary to overcome those unexpected twists in the road without burying you under a mountain of stress.
Putting it together
In the story of The Ambulance Down in the Valley, the cliff presented danger to those who wanted to see the magnificent view of the lookout point. Dentistry, with all it has to offer, is that magnificent view. When you recognize different stressors, focus on what matters most, and develop systems catered to your needs, you’ll put a fence at the cliff of stress and be able to take it in with confidence.
Weston Eggett, D4
Western University of Health Sciences