Burnout: How to Complete Your Stress Cycle as a Dentist

By: Savanah Craig

Burnout is a hot topic. It is especially prevalent for those who are high achievers, in helping professions or have a caretaking role.

As a dentist, I find myself identifying with each of those categories.

After experiencing burnout in dental school, I have been determined to find resources and strategies to prevent those feelings after graduation.

One of the best resources I have found for learning to prevent burnout is the book “Burnout: The Secret to unlocking the stress cycle” by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., and Amelia Nagoski, DMA.

How “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” Defines Burnout

In the introduction the authors define burnout in three components:

  1. Emotional Exhaustion: the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long
  2. Depersonalization: the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion
  3. Decreased Sense of Accomplishment: an unconquerable sense of futility; feeling like nothing you do makes any difference

The book suggests that reason we become burnout is that we are stuck in the middle of the stress cycle.

Our stress response (fight, flight, freeze) was created by evolution to protect us.

We need increased cortisol and blood flow to our muscles to help us to run away from tigers and allow our ancestors to survive.

However, now our stress is chronic and packaged as angry patients and expensive overhead instead of tigers.

Our brain and body know that we’re stressed but do not know how to process modern stressful situations in the same way, so we get stuck in the middle of the stress cycle.

Finding a Way to Handle Modern Stressful Situations

Your body doesn’t understand that you’ve checked something off of your to-do list and requires that you deal with the stress inside of you, rather than the stressor that caused it.

We must find a modern way to tell our brain and body that the stressful situation has been handled.

Physical Activity

When the tiger was chasing our ancestors, they ran.

Today, our bodies and mind still understand physical activity as a way to complete the stress response.

Between 20-60 minutes of physical activity is enough to help your body go all the way through and complete your stress response and prevent you from being stuck in the middle.

What To Do When Physical Activity isn’t an Option

Other ways to complete the stress response include:

  • deep breathing
  • laughter
  • crying

This isn’t particularly revolutionary information but planning one of these three ways to release stress from your body on days when physical activity isn’t possible can really make all the difference.

It is important to allow yourself to express your feelings fully and work all the way through the stress cycle until you come through to the other side.

You will feel a sense of relief and an understanding that the cycle has been completed.

Positive Social Interaction & Affection

Positive social interaction and affection are two other ways to help complete the stress cycle.

When our ancestors ran away from their stressors and arrived home to their village safely, they were met with affection from their loved ones who were happy they were safe.

Smiling faces of their friends would greet them as they told of their escape from the tiger.

Our brain and body know how to interrupt an embrace after a long hard day as an indication it is safe to end the cycle because the stressor has been dealt with.

In our world of chronic stress, it might not be the case that the stressor has been dealt with completely, but it has been dealt with for that day.

Allow yourself to interact fondly with those around you and allow those positive interactions to help you complete your stress response.

My Biggest Take-Away

The biggest takeaway from the book is that we are impacted by stress every day, so we need to complete the stress cycle every day.

Having these resources and options for completing the stress cycle has really changed how I deal with my own stress.

I may not be able to eliminate the stress in my life. A lot of that is out of my control.

What is in my control, however, is making sure my body is not holding onto unprocessed stress for any longer than necessary. 

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom

Next Up: Communicating in Difficult Situations – Part 1

Savanah Craig

Savanah Craig

Savanah Craig is a graduate of Baldwin Wallace University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology. She is currently a 2022 D.D.S. Candidate at The Ohio State University College of Dentistry. She will be pursuing a General Practice Residency in Columbia, SC following graduation. In her free time, Savanah enjoys reading, exploring new restaurants, and traveling.