ONE SEMESTER DOWN! These past 5 months have been the most emotionally and mentally challenging of my life, and I can’t help but reflect on a few different things in the time that has gone by, in what feels like a blink of an eye. I have gotten many messages from dental students and pre-dents around the country, who ask how I handle x, y, and z. More often than not, I get questions on how I handle studying and juggling school and life, how I organize my notes and days, etc. But beyond those topics (which to me are merely “logistical” in a way), there are a few things that I feel like have been at the core of needing to be “handled” this semester. This is a more intimate post into my time in dental school so far; this blog is meant to be a depiction of honesty and humility, and if I was not open about struggle I would not be keeping to my core values. I hope it may help someone who may also one day go through something similar.
Unhappiness is relative; it can be fleeting or lingering, emotionally taxing, a window into changes that need to be made, and it sometimes disguises itself and comes out at the worst of times. In dental school a lot of people find themselves away from home, surrounded by new people, new challenges, new… everything. Unhappiness can come in the form of homesickness, academic stressors, struggles with family or social life, or internal struggles within yourself. Sometimes, you may not even know where it is stemming from but you may feel a little bit of a hole in life that just can’t seem to get filled.
In my time here thus far, I have dealt with of bouts of unhappiness – and its interesting, because its something that you know might happen because lets face it, life isn’t perfect and its foolish (and unfair to your own sanity) to expect it to be, but I didn’t expect how it would hit me, affect me, change me, and cause me to struggle. And most of all, its scary, because sometimes the feeling didn’t “go away” when I desperately needed it to.
So what do you do when you find yourself with a dark raincloud over your head? Well, its hard to say because again, unhappiness is relative, and I honestly don’t know the answer. What I do know is that no matter what situation you’re in you have to face it head on in order to resolve and grow. Here are some things that have really helped me and if you are experiencing the same thing, may help you too:
Change your perception—see the root cause as a blessing in disguise. Sit in silence, journal, talk to someone. No matter what, think of any situation as an opportunity to learn and grow, and have hope that there is a light at the end of ANY tunnel.
Channel your discontent into an immediate positive action (my personal favorite)— Helping those in need is a HUGE passion of mine and always brings me back to a place of gratitude, love, and joy. There are always opportunities out there to give back, whether it is through your school, the community, or a church or non-profit.
Visualize a box in your head labeled “Expectations.” Whenever you start dwelling on how things should be or should have been, or any negative thought in general, shelve the thoughts in this box, and then mentally mail it somewhere far far away and that you’d never go. I send mine to a seafood-only restaurant in Maine because I’m allergic to shellfish. Expectations are the root of all heartache, as they say.
Cry it out. According to Dr. William Frey II, PH.D., biochemist at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, “crying away your negative feelings releases harmful chemicals that build up in your body due to stress”.
Imagine your life ten years from now. Then look twenty years into the future, and then thirty. Realize that many of the things you’re worrying about don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
Laugh it out. Research shows that laughter soothes tension, improves your immune system, and even eases pain. If you can’t relax for long, start with just ten minutes watching a funny video on YouTube. Watching SNL is my personal favorite!
Like other emotions, there is no one explanation for guilt. I often feel guilty for feeling the unhappiness we talked about above, because “theres no reason I should be feeling like this when I used to pray for the life I live now”. One may feel guilty for not doing well in school, for not giving enough time to his or her family, significant other, or people back home. You may even feel guilty for the way you handled a situation, or any sort of mistake you made. Whatever the case is, guilt can be debilitating. David Burns, MD, is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School and author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy tells us:
“Neuroscience research shows that our brains actually reward us for feeling guilt. Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens. Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions — except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center.
You broke your diet. You insulted your friend. Bad stuff. Nobody disputes that. But should you feel bad weeks or months later?”
When we’re rational about rule-breaking we set a limit. You don’t get 30 years in prison for a traffic ticket. But sometimes you sentence yourself to months or years of emotional pain over minor offenses. With guilt, we’re often irrational. How can we know if we’re being rational? Look at the intensity, duration and consequences of the negative emotions you feel. Are they appropriate? Probably not.
How to stop feeling guilty:
• Stop magnifying: Ask yourself if your self-punishment fits the crime. It probably doesn’t.
• You are not your actions: You’re responsible for your actions but they don’t make you a bad person. Learn from them, you’re only human.
• Self-compassion: Forgiving yourself makes you behave better. Thinking you’re a bad person makes you act worse.
• Apologize. Confront any situation you may be dealing with with the utmost honestly and humility.
• Ask “What can I learn from this?”: Torturing yourself doesn’t make you a better person. Learning does.
Balance is one of those things I have had to actively work hardest to keep. One way to think of balance is the big “work-life” balance idea; for me, this is making sure that no matter how hard I work in school and the hours I put in to study, I make sure I do things to keep balanced, such as going to yoga or self-practicing (if I can’t make a weekly class) when I wake up in the morning for at least 20 minutes. I also try and cook, watch my tv shows or read my books by the pool, and spend time with friends. At least one night a week I devote to NO STUDYING.
Keeping balance comes in all different ways and depends on where you are in your own life, and what relaxation and stress relief means to you. No matter what, you have to be true to yourself. One thing I realized is sometimes, one person’s idea of stress relief might not be your own. For example, if your friends like to do yoga, but being in a hot room stresses you out even more, then yoga may not be the best outlet for you. If others like to go grab drinks but you’d rather watch movies or explore the city you’re in (or vice versa), find people who also want to do the same thing, which serves your sanity right. And sometimes, it just depends on the day you’re having to decide what you need in that moment. The bottom line is, whatever your soul is yearning for, listen to it.
Find your niche, find your tribe, and find your balance.
I, like many others, feel like one of the greatest success in my life so far is getting into dental school. The gratitude that comes with something like this, something one has to work SO hard for, is inevitable. But, in the midst of life’s big successes, come many many small ones that should never be overshadowed. Sometimes, its these small successes that actually are the backbone and carry us on to achieve something huge, and they should be celebrated.
Mental health successes:
And here is something I try to remember everyday, when i’m feeling down or frustrated, guilty or out of balance, or extremely upset with an 89.9 on an exam (shoutout to those who also know that type-A and RIDICULOUS feeling) in order to make sure I make the most out of this WONDERFUL time in life …..
“The true currency of life is time, not money, and we’ve all got a limited stock of that.” – Robert Harris