Stress and Resiliency

Dr. Mark Kirklan

Dr. Mark Kirkland

Dean Mark Kirkland's April column:

Stress: It’s been on my mind lately, and probably yours, too.

I’ve been hearing a lot about people feeling stressed: our faculty, our staff, our students. From a macro perspective, there are many issues that can cause us to feel stressed: There are social, political, and environmental factors that can cause stress. From protests to natural disasters, these stressors can affect us directly as individuals, or may impact our families or communities.

On a more micro level, many of our students and trainees are far from home, separated from their families and sources of support. Stresses associated with the high cost of living in the Bay Area are amplified (e.g., high cost of housing, child care, education). These are relatively contemporary stressors.

However, feeling a bit stressed is not terribly new. What are some of the things that are different now, compared with 15, 20 years ago? How are we coping with this perceived increase in stress? How do we build resiliency in the face of these issues?

One difference hits particularly close to home. Historically, students are concerned with real-time, day-to-day issues that they encounter. In recent conversations with our D1 and D2 students, I’m finding that learners are looking at the clinical years in front of them and getting very anxious about things that are 12 or 24 months away. This is new, and it is concerning. I do not recall encountering this before.

Now, with every class there are students who, at this time of year, are feeling a little anxious. Understandably, fourth-year students are trying to complete course requirements for graduation. For some reason, the level of anxiety seems to be unusually high this year. Moreover, students in all classes are juggling a lot of different things. Some are squeezing in mission trips; others are involved in many extracurricular activities; some have family obligations (they may be young parents, or perhaps responsible for the care of aging parents). Many of these can be good things, but they can add to stress because of scheduling conflicts or competing priorities. This stress may impact relationships or manifest itself in altered sleep patterns.

We need to help students manage these issues. We, as faculty, need to be aware of resources that are available to our students and staff. There are counseling and other services here on campus to help students manage stressful situations.

There’s another modern element that we all grapple with: the advent of electronic communication, whether by email or through social media. I’m certainly not immune. I was at a conference last month and decided to take a few minutes one evening to respond to a couple of emails. The next thing I knew, two hours had gone by! As a result of spending this much unexpected time responding to emails, I had to modify my plans for the evening.

Those buzzes and pings of our phones and tablets can take us away from other important things: relationships, conversations, even rest. We may believe waking up at 3 a.m. to read a text or email means we’re staying connected or being on top of things, but this adds to our stress. Sleep deprivation is a serious health concern. It can impact our thought process and the decisions we make. The potential risks — not only to ourselves, but to our patients — are real.

There’s a saying I like: “Pay yourself first.” We can’t take care of others unless we take care of ourselves. So get sufficient sleep, eat right, exercise. Don’t just plow through the tasks of the day; take time for lunch and restorative breaks (even 5 minutes can be beneficial). Set boundaries. Consider exchanging the social media rabbit hole for having more time to spend in meditation or listening to your favorite music. Live in the moment. Don’t worry more than necessary. Good self-care builds resiliency. And in these times, we all need it.

Mark Kirkland, DDS, FACS, is the interim dean of the UCSF School of Dentistry.

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