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Mindfulness: Bringing the science of mindful living into dental hygiene

April 26, 2017
Judith Stein, RDH, describes how concepts of mindfulness can be used in dental hygiene practice.

By Judith M. Stein, RDH

Mindfulness. Ever heard of it? If you haven’t, that wouldn’t surprise me. The essence of the word doesn’t scream front page headline. It’s not the nature of mindfulness to jump out at you either. “Mindfulness is about being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment, without filters or the lens of judgment.”(1)

I believe the practice of mindfulness has the power and ability to affect all facets of our lives, including our dental careers. I see mindfulness spilling over into every dental professional, every dental situation, every dental research lab, and every dental operatory to help us all attain our personal best.

Just think about this for a moment. Pause and consider what it would be like to be so present with your dental patient, so attuned with your procedure that you are alert yet not stressed, aware yet without judgement. In other words, finely tuned into the moment you are a part of.

You may now be tempted to shout at me, “What if I don’t want to be aware of my moment? I don’t want to be fully present to the grumpy patient in my dental chair. I don’t want to be tuned into another repetitive procedure that allows my mind to wander and causes my body to scream in pain.”

Let me first validate your feelings, but also ask you to stay with me on this journey. As the author of “What the Buddha Taught,” Walpola Rahula states, “(Mindfulness) is simply observing, watching, examining. You are not a judge but a scientist.”(2) Viewing every grumpy patient, every repetitive procedure, every challenge and success through the lens of a scientist could bring about a whole new perspective.

While practicing mindfulness you have the opportunity to become aware of new possibilities that your previously frustrated mind may have been blocking out. I liken it to the lifting of heaviness. It feels so liberating and accelerating to no longer live your life on auto-pilot or tied up in frustration or judgment. When you leave the negativity of unhealthy thought patterns out of your mind, the world can and will change.

Interested in the science behind the practice of mindfulness? Let me share a quick synopsis.

Mindfulness addresses the physiological reaction your body has to stress. When you perceive a situation as a threat, the hypothalamus will prompt your adrenal glands to secrete cortisol and adrenalin. The release of adrenalin alone will cause elevated blood pressure and heart rates.

Cortisol reacts differently. Cortisol will increase glucose into your blood stream but it will also slow down other bodily functions. The increase of cortisol can slow down your digestive system, reproductive system, as well as challenge your immune system. Mayo Clinic has done some brilliant research to validate the effects stress has on the human body.(3) This research includes how stress can put you at an increase risks for many of the following health challenges: Anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.

These physiological actions lead our bodies to choose between a fight, flight, or freeze response. What the practice of mindfulness attempts to do is teach a person to self-activate a different response to stress. Rather than staying in a state of heightened anxiety, fear, or soaring blood pressure, mindfulness trains a person to kick in a formal or informal response to the stress.

Formal vs. informal

So, if I’ve caught your attention enough to continue, let’s break down mindfulness a little more. Mindfulness is broken into a formal versus informal mindfulness practices. It’s actually quite simple. A formal mindfulness practice would be to intentionally take time out to meditate, mindful walking,(4) practice yoga, do a mindfulness body scan,(5) or even a Metta meditation.(6)

The key word here is intentional. You plan and set aside time to do this. Thankfully, there is a plethora of formal mindfulness opportunities. Meditation groups have gathered in homes, in churches, and coffee shops. Online Metta meditation sites are available today as well. There is also a wide variety of Yoga practices to choose from: Iyengar,(7) Restorative,(8) Ashtanga,(9), Vinyasa,(10), Yin.(11) I’ve tried them all and felt many blessings from each.

An informal mindfulness practice requires a person to bring more attention to everyday tasks such as breathing, driving, walking, eating, or any activity you do on a daily basis. I must share with you that while I was seeking out more information on this topic of mindfulness I began attending an eight-week mindfulness class. My first informal mindfulness assignment was to begin paying full attention to how I brushed my teeth. Actually, the entire class was expected to do so. For a moment, I thought maybe the instructors knew my professional dental background.

That notion was quickly dismissed as feedback from others who performed this simple informal mindfulness act was shared. Turns out many of us in the class were not mindfully brushing our teeth. Many of us “zoned out” as our minds went to our daily task lists instead of tooth brushing. Needless to say, I’ve begun incorporating some mindfulness skills into the home-care instructions I share with my patients now. I encourage them to stay aware of their dental home-care routines. I use the words “be mindful while you are brushing and flossing your teeth.”

I have also brought in more aspects of mindfulness to my prophylactic care, patient health history review, sterilization procedures, and numerous other dental applications. The implications are endless.

I would also like to offer you a glance at the eight attitudes that are considered to be the building blocks of mindfulness and how I see them playing out in our dental profession.(12) There is no expectation to achieve all eight attitudes. Rather the following is an offering of insight for you to glimpse into the simplicity of mindfulness.

1. Beginner’s mind. This quality of awareness sees things as new and fresh, as if for the first time, with a sense of curiosity.

For me, this attitude plays out best with my overall treatment approach and planning for every patient I work with. I take nothing for granted. I make no assumptions. I ask more questions especially regarding medical history review and patient homecare routines. Whether the situation has a positive or negative outcome, I now have beginner’s mind approach throughout my entire work day.

2. Nonjudgment. This quality of awareness involves cultivating impartial observation in regard to any experience—not labeling thoughts, feelings, or sensations as good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair, but simply taking note of thoughts, feelings, or sensations in each moment.

Please notice this attitude of mindfulness is referring to thoughts, feelings, and/or sensations, not facts. It is not referring to our actions or lack of them either. I pause here because of my personal struggle with perfectionism. I wish I was perfect, but I’m not. I like getting every procedure perfect, but that doesn’t always happen the first time. What I’ve learned is not to judge my actions, but rather to learn from them. I no longer carry shame or guilt with me. Today I seek learning and wisdom to move forward and learn from my imperfections.

3. Acknowledgement. This quality of awareness validates and acknowledges things as they are.

It has been said that one cannot heal what one is not aware of. I believe you could apply this to any situation—professional or personal. When you become aware of your situation and choose to validate it, your world has the potential to open up. Whether you need to heal from something, learn from something or celebrate something you must first acknowledge it in order to move forward.

4. Nonstriving. With this quality of awareness, there is no grasping, aversion to change, or movement away from whatever arises in the moment; in other words, nonstriving means not trying to get anywhere other than where you are.

Whether you find yourself in a positive or negative life circumstance, the practice of mindfulness will help you embrace each moment rather than avoid the moment all together. With different breathing techniques and yoga practices I have learned to stay in my moment without judgement. By staying with my present moment I have learned more and found life much more interesting. Does this mean I haven’t wished away the painful moments? Absolutely not! It only means I work through them. I don’t avoid life anymore. I learned to embrace the journey.

5. Equanimity. This quality of awareness involves balance and fosters wisdom. It allows a deep understanding of the nature of change and allows you to be with change with greater insight and compassion.

In my past, to be balanced was an elusive dream. Today, with the help of mindfulness, I am attuned to my present situation differently and no longer dream of a state of balance. When life, whether professional or personal, begins to feel out of balance I have skills today that allow me to address this situation. I don’t avoid change; I accept it. Wisdom and compassion flow more abundantly when a state of physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual (PIES) balance is achieved.

6. Letting be. With this quality of awareness, you can simply let things be as they are, with no need to try to let go of whatever is present.

Please note this attitude does not give a dental professional permission to sit back and let the oral situation of a patient disintegrate. Quite the opposite. Keeping a beginner’s mind set, leaving out judgement and acknowledging the situation can open your mind up to endless discoveries and treatment possibilities. Applying this mindful attitude to your personal and professional life can keep the pathways of knowledge open instead of clenching them closed with frustration.

7. Self-reliance. This quality of awareness helps you see for yourself, from your own experience, what is true or untrue.

In other words, learn to believe in yourself. Lean to trust yourself. This doesn’t mean you will be right 100% of the time but with new Mindfulness skills you are better able to recognize and admit when you are wrong. When mistakes occur, amends can and should be made. Do not fear your instincts, though. Cultivate them and learn from them.

8. Self-compassion. This quality of awareness cultivates love for yourself as you are, without self-blame or criticism.

Right now, if I asked you to pause and grade yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest level of self-compassion, what number would you assign yourself? I’m not asking you to share this with anyone. I’m not asking you to judge yourself either. I’m just asking you to approach this attitude with a beginner’s mind to see if there is any room for improvement. If so, move forward. Begin to care for yourself. Remember, self compassion will look differently for each person. Compassion at work may be having the courage to ask for extra time to perform perio maintenance appointments. It may be attending more continuing education workshops. It may be relaxing during your lunch hour instead of restocking dental supplies. It may be scheduling monthly hand massage appointments. Self-compassion plays out differently for each person. What’s important is that it “plays out” in you!

Having shared my thoughts on mindfulness, the physiology of mindfulness, definitions and attitudes of mindfulness, I must also share what appears to bind each and every aspect together—breaths. The act of breathing mindfully. Each aspect of mindfulness will address your breath and its ability to bring you to a state of calm. If my words alone haven’t intrigued you to consider mindfulness, I offer to you an insightful 60 Minutes news segment led by Anderson Cooper.(13) He introduces Jon Kabot-Zinn and his approach to the practice of mindfulness.

As I close this article it is my hope that you will discover a pull toward living a more mindful life. I’ve heard it shared that “If only I had a crystal ball I could see into the future to avoid the mistakes I made in my past (author unknown).” I no longer wish for that crystal ball. Today I chose to live right here, right now. Is it all a bed of roses? Absolutely no. But I’m learning to breathe through life more mindfully rather than avoiding a thorn or two.

JUDITH M. STEIN, RDH, is a 1981 graduate of Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich. Judy has enjoyed a variety of professional opportunities in her hygiene career, is committed to lifelong learning, and is now employed in private practice. The author is an active volunteer in several professional, community, and faith organizations. She can be reached at [email protected].


  1. Stahl B, Goldstein E. A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2010. p 15.
  2. Rahula W. What the Buddha Taught. New York. Grove Press. (1974)
  12. Stahl B, Goldstein E. A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. New Harbinger Publication, Inc. 2010 p 41–42.

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