As hygienists, we have the privilege of working in a field that is positive and bright. We are prevention specialists, stopping the progression of periodontal disease and educating our patients about modifiable risk factors for a better future. Our jobs provide us immediate gratification when patients walk out the door with brighter, healthier smiles after an hour of hard work.
But what happens when all this gratifying work is halted? How do we find hope in the midst of the chaos? This is a hard time to smile. While we both work professionally as hygienists, we are also endurance athletes who regularly participate in triathlons and ultramarathons. We want to share some stories and lessons we have learned through these pursuits to help you find a way to smile through this season.
S: Start with loving yourself
In the eighth grade, I desperately wanted to be a cheerleader. I went to all the tryout events, dance routine clinics, and worked late into the night to perfect my technique. I acquired additional coaching from the high school varsity team members as well. I donned school colors and embraced team spirit during my tryout session.
I did not make the team. At that moment, I allowed the judges to tell me that I was not athletic, I did not have a body that could jump high enough, cheer loud enough, or dance rhythmically enough. I learned, however, that as soon as I began to embrace my body and have gratitude, my life changed.
Now, years later, those same feet that once jumped off the ground in a cheer tryout session have taken me hundreds of miles through dark morning training sessions and icy cold water. Each morning I feel gratitude and love for this body that has the opportunity to run, bike, and swim. However, anyone on the outside watching this woman in motion sees the truth. I live in a middle-aged-mother-of-four body. I don’t wear size-small scrubs or use yoga pants as a fashion statement. But I am healthy, I am happy, and I am grateful. I am an ironman.
M: Find a mantra
I shield my eyes by pulling the brim of my ball cap down. This hill looks tall today and is a regular nemesis. The rocks are loose and the hill tricks me with a turn and increase in incline halfway up. I start my mantra to think about my running form. “Pop, pop, pop. Fear that thing; do that thing!” I say this aloud to remember to pick my feet up and focus on the task at hand. Now, I’m breathing hard and getting the benefit of a great view. This hill always seems harder at the bottom than it does at the top.
Mantras are powerful tools to help us focus our thoughts. They can also be used to push out intrusive thoughts and feelings that are not serving us in positive ways. I use several mantras when running that can focus my thoughts on my running form or, more broadly, on my approach to this day of running.
I use mantras in my practice of dental hygiene as well, such as, “This is my only patient today,” and “This is my commitment to excellence.” I use quotes from poetry, scripture, and my own thoughts. One of my favorite mantras is “Run the mile you are in.”
This can be used in life as well. I do not have to know what tomorrow or the next day will look like; I am not required to have a strategy and plan amidst all the uncertainty, but I can be present in this moment and give it all that I have. I can choose to focus and control my thoughts. I can choose to take a new outlook on the situation I face. I can choose to smile.
I: Invest time in stillness
Time is an interesting prospect. While we all have been given the same amount, how we choose to use and invest in that gift can change everything. I treat time as a blessing. I share it with those I love. I invest it in what truly brings joy, and I protect it from anything that would steal that joy away. My key to making decisions about how to use the precious time I have been given is simple: Put first things first.
It is 3:00 AM and the alarm goes off. The world is still and dark, and in those early morning hours I forget about work, family responsibilities, and even COVID-19. I choose to forget. This is my time, and I fight hard to not share it with anyone or anything. I move quietly to my chair, careful not to look at my phone. The alerts, emails, and notifications can wait. The rest of the day will begin in full motion soon enough, but for now, I sit and reflect.
I rummage through the basket next to the chair: journal, notebooks, nondigital reading material. All things that help guide my reflection and still my soul. I find peace in that chair. It is a sacred space to me.
I smile and cling to this stillness as I head out to train physically. Not wanting to interrupt the clarity and peace, I again choose to not let the world in. I select music or a podcast without reading the incoming notifications on my phone. I am always surprised how my mind is still as my legs go into full motion. Stillness in motion. Peace in chaos. Smiles through the storm. Finding time to be still and reflect is critical.
L: Lean into this experience
I catch myself smiling for no reason. There is a perfect breeze and just a slight prick of the sun on my shoulders. I nod a smile to another runner on the trail and feel a surge of excitement as I hear my tracker tell me I am on pace. A mile later, I feel like I am pushing a large lead ball up this set of switchbacks and wondering if I can make up for this slowing pace on the downhill to come.
When completing long runs, there can be very high highs and very low lows. In my experience, they often are not very far removed from one another. It’s important to not cloud the highs with concern for what is to come, and we make the low points lower when we allow for thoughts like, “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “This is hard. Something must be wrong for this to be so hard.”
The truth is, we have to have equal parts of the good and the bad in life. We make the bad worse when we tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel this way or that it isn’t fair that we are having this experience. When I am experiencing a low, I don’t fight it or panic by worrying about how long I am going to feel this way. I usually go through a mental checklist. “Do I need more water? Are my caloric needs met?”
We can do the same in life. When we realize we are in mental duress, we can take a step back, and instead of trying to soften or numb our feelings, objectively ask, “What is making me feel this worry, anxiety, or fear?” Once we objectively consider the source, we are no longer struggling against these feelings. We can acknowledge their existence and then choose another, less reactive response. We can lean into these moments and choose to smile anyway.
It was a hard day at work. I was wondering why the calculus on the distal of 15 was so difficult and thinking about how the office needed new instruments. During his exam, the doctor picked up a Gracey and removed that calculus. Humiliation set in. I felt my eyes widen and there was everything, except a smile, hidden under my mask as my mouth gaped open. I should not have quit. I could have removed that. I should have tried again and given that area more effort.
On another day, years later, I had a conflict with my boss. I had made a suggestion and request on two separate occasions, with no response. He finally gave me an answer. He stood above me as he condescendingly discussed my request. I felt my face get hot. Physiologically my body was responding to all of these negative emotions. My mind was screaming, but my face was neutral. I was humiliated and defeated. I could not find effective words or anything healthy I could add to that brutal conversation. I left, sat in the car, and gave myself a moment to just feel the rage and anger. But I could not take that home.
I ran an errand. I decided to smile at everyone I saw in the store. I smiled for no reason at the checkout line. I smiled as I drove down the street and gassed up the car. I made an effort to move past the feelings and leave them there. I got home and was exhausted. All of that effort to smile had taken all I had, the same way a race does. It doesn’t matter if I have just finished a sprint triathlon or a full Ironman; I am always tired. Regardless of the distance, I give it all I have.
Growth takes effort. But why is it worth the effort to force a smile? Science has shown that smiling can elevate our mood by releasing the powerful “happy” hormones dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin.1 Researchers have actually found that the brain stimulation produced by one smile can be equivalent to that of 2,000 chocolate bars.1 Smiling is actually contagious; when we see another person smile, we are more likely to smile and feel better ourselves.1
We hope that through all of this COVID-19-induced chaos, you can remember to Start with self-love, Make mantras part of your daily practice, Invest the time, Learn to lean into this experience, and keep the Effort to smile strong. As a hygienist, you already have experience smiling behind your mask. Now let it show in your eyes!
This article first appeared in RDH eVillage, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the dental hygiene professional. Subscribe here.
Gutman R. The hidden power of smiling. TED Talks. 2011. [Video] https://www.ted.com/talks/ron_gutman_the_hidden_power_of_smiling/transcript?language=en
Victoria Green, RDH, MEd, is currently an instructor at A. T. Still University Arizona School of Oral Health and Dentistry in Mesa, Arizona, and also teaches dental hygiene courses at the University of Pittsburgh through distance education. Victoria has nine years of teaching experience in dental education and 10 years in private practice. She received a master’s in education from the University of Pittsburgh and is currently pursuing a master’s in public health through A. T. Still University.
Neisha Merrell, RDH, received her bachelor of science in dental hygiene from Northern Arizona University. She has 14 years of teaching experience and is currently an instructor at A. T. Still University Arizona School of Oral Health and Dentistry in Mesa, Arizona. Prior to her current teaching position, she taught at Rio Salado School of Dental Hygiene in Phoenix, Arizona.