Home Issues2023 Well-Being Issue When the Sh*t Gets Knee-Deep

When the Sh*t Gets Knee-Deep

Combatting the Inherent Stress of Practice Ownership

by Susan Maples

owning a private practice is like raising a small child that never really grows up

It’s not the dentistry that weighs heavy on most dentists’ backs, it’s the inherent stress of practice ownership, and all that it entails.  

My private practice hums along in evolution, and I enjoy my leadership role. But owning a private practice is like raising a small child that never really grows up—it is fraught with interesting surprises that are bound to make your heart shudder.  

I recently purchased an ICAT for $120k that required $25k in remodeling to create the space.  After the install we found out the new (required) software wasn’t supported by our current hardware and suddenly the project was $200k instead of $145k.  Fair enough.   But simultaneously, we suffered another unforeseen loss.  We bid a sad goodbye to two (of our three) long-time hygienists, due to personal tragedy.  In supporting them, we drained our emotional coffers just as reality smacked us in the face—we discovered the gaping shortage of hygienists in the hiring pool.  Without a solid hygiene schedule our restorative schedule suffered.  And suddenly, I’m mired in stress…. again!     

I found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, which was frustrating, knowing that my sleep loss renders me a less effective leader:  less resourceful, more irritable, less resilient, less creative, and dare I admit it… a little depressed. 

It was time to remind myself about a few age-old principles that I knew could help mitigate my overactive stress response:

  1. Nothing stays the same for long. In other words, “This too shall pass”! With that in mind, I can take a deep breath and trust there’s incredible value in working through each challenge.  We live our lives trying to avoid catastrophe and chaos, even though we know that learning and growth are inevitably tucked into every trial.  Our difficulties serve to enrich us organizationally, but also personally. 

I reminded myself not to make permanent decisions to solve temporary problems.  In this case for example, I looked at some short-term spending reductions that could provide some immediate relief.  We also implemented some real-time creative employment strategies to become more attractive to a community of hygiene candidates in today’s hiring culture.

  1. The person with the highest Emotional Intelligence (EI) wins! It’s true. We are being judged by a new yardstick in leadership ethos. How we respond to our stressors impacts the team culture and our community reputation more than we ever realized.     Multiple studies over the past three decades have revealed that the extent to which we can positively manage our own emotions and our communications with others directly impacts our outcomes, either toward our detriment or triumphThe good news is that EQ (Emotional Quotient) unlike IQ can be raised!   

If you are looking for a jumpstart in EI learning, consider reading one of Daniel Goldman’s books such as Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ or attending an EI workshop offered by dental consultant and coach, Dr. Robert Frazer, DDS and Master Counselor, Dr. Bill Woodburn. 

  1. Don’t play the blame game. I must accept radical responsibility for whatever comes my way.  There are very few times in life where we truly fall victim to a pre-meditated attack.  Mostly, we suffer from consequences that occur as a downstream result of our own actions, or inactions.   So, owning responsibility is leader-like behavior.  It reassures my team that I am taking the dilemma seriously, but without inditing others who may have played a role in its origin.  In avoiding denial, it also leaves me wide open for my best learning. 
  1. Seek wise council when developing a strategy.  I don’t need to come up with creative, best-practice solutions all by myself.   I can tap into the collected wisdom of my steward team members, who’s voices I have come to trust.  I can also seek help from outside consultants, taking care to choose only those who conspire for our best, and at a fair fee.      
  1. We can’t pour from an empty vessel. In other words, I must take care of ME in the process. Emotional/mental stress often creates physical repercussions too.    The extent to which I can care for myself during stressful times absolutely impacts our results and can fortify my physical health in the process. Because all eyes are on me, as a leader, it’s also important to demonstrate examples of wellness practices.  

I can avoid “comfort” foods (actually, ultra-processed foods, altogether), practice restraint from drugs that attempt to quell my discomfort (including alcohol), hydrate with pure water, exercise daily and sleep soundly.  These all deserve special attention, but I will highlight sleep, exercise, and mindfulness strategies for a closer look. 

  1. Sleep long, and soundly.  Amid crisis, this can be easier said than done, but it’s extremely important.  When we lose even 90 minutes of REM-sleep at night, our cognitive ability drops approximately 35% the very next day.  That means my processing speed and decision-making skills, which are critically important during tough times, are hyper-impaired.   Sleep deprivation also diminishes our Emotional Intelligence, triggers irritability and can even stimulate some irreversible cognitive deficits.

    When I need to improve my sleep, I make sure to dial my thermostat to 66 degrees, keep my bedroom quiet and dark, abandon all screens at least one hour before bedtime, and steer clear of caffeine or alcohol (as either can rob my sleep quality).  On a side note: if you’ve been diagnosed with UARS or OSA, by all means, wear your CPAP or Mandibular Advancement Device and test periodically for its effectiveness. 

  1. Daily movement matters. This is by far the best medicine for me!  Under duress many of us forget that exercise is considered the best elixir for mental health and sleep promotion.   Unfortunately, when we feel “spent”, strenuous activity is the last thing we make time for.   Try accepting a ten-minute exercise challenge twice daily and be grateful if it leads to more.   If your favorite form of body movement happens to be outdoors, you’ll get a double bonus.  Connecting to nature brings its own merits of tranquility and renewal—elements that bolster your creative thinking and decision making.
  1. Quieting the mind. My ability to transform my state from sympathetic nervous reaction (fight-or-flight) to parasympathetic (rest and relax) is paramount to cultivating creativity, calm, improved business analytics and quality sleep. Again, it’s easier said than done. I’ve found it takes continual practice to control my negative thoughts.   Buddha said it best: “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.” 

We now recognize that fear and love are two opposite emotions that cannot coexist.  So intentionally shifting my mindset from fear & anxiety to kindness & gratitude helps me every time. Some easy, and highly accessible tools for this are nature walks, breathwork (slow, deliberate in-and-out breathing) and mindfulness meditation practices.  

If this has been helpful and you are interested in more reading/listening resources in leadership, EI, sleep, nutrition, or mindfulness feel free to contact me – I’m here to help:  Susan@DrSusanMaples.com.

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