Are You Brushing Your Brain?
There was a time when people didn’t brush their teeth. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? In the United States, brushing teeth did not become routine until after World War II. Today we know that oral hygiene is an important part of good health. Without removing plaque, we develop cavities, gum disease and eventual tooth loss. Ultimately that impacts physical wellbeing. You can have a heart attack from the germs that come from an unhealthy mouth!
In many ways, our brains are no different. Unless we are aware of what we are thinking and believing, mental tartar builds up and distorts our perceptions of the world. It’s because our brains naturally hold onto negative experiences more than positive ones. That built-in negativity bias helps keep us safe, but unless we pause to examine those fears and anxieties, we have a warped sense of reality. Dr. Dan Siegel refers to mindfulness practice as “good brain hygiene” that is as important as brushing our teeth.
Our brains are wired for survival. Bad things are remembered more than something good. This means that we readily notice and internalize anything negative that happens to us during the course of a day, while glossing over anything positive because we're busy solving problems or scanning for something to worry about. We need to be mindful to counteract our default to the negative. We can make this happen if we take time to savor the many positives we experience in a day but just fail to notice.
As a dental leader, you are responsible for creating an environment in which your employees are nurtured and energized, your patients are served, and your practice flourishes. In the complex and pressured lives we live, we measure time in Internet seconds. Minds become distracted by the urgent at the expense of the important. You become so preoccupied with yesterday and tomorrow that you don’t lead in the present.
Broadly, the state of being mindful is achieved by focusing attention on one’s thoughts and emotions in a curious, open, and accepting way. The actual practice of becoming mindful may look much like meditation. Certainly, formal meditation is something that is done in a quiet classroom with a group of people and a facilitator. But mindfulness can be done at a desk or in an office when a few minutes can be carved out of a busy day.
Incorporate it into your life using a cue such as a red traffic light, just before each meal, or pausing to listen to the hourly chime of a clock. This use of cues can help the behavior to become an embedded habit over time. The practice itself could be nothing more than taking three deep and slow breaths while noticing one’s present state and accepting it non-judgmentally.
You can boost your sense of safety and neutralize the fight-or-flight instinct by focusing on experiences that make you feel calm. We often miss opportunities to practice calmness because we're used to being "on" all the time. Imagine the impact you have on your patients as you rush from one operatory to another in the course of a day. Instead of racing down the hall, intentionally walk slowly and take a couple of deep breaths with each deliberate step.
Raise your satisfaction by savoring feelings of gratitude, accomplishment and contentment. These are strong antidotes to the negativity bias in the brain. Pay attention to what satisfaction means for you and then stop for a moment to enjoy the experience when it happens.
Value the people in your life. Each day focus on the times when you feel cared about as well as when you care for someone else. Notice and appreciate the things you do that make you feel good as a person. William James - considered to be the ‘father’ of psychology - said, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” Don't let the daily preoccupations with your practice cause you to miss the appreciation you receive from those around you.
If you find yourself going through the day on automatic pilot, irritated by your staff, angry at an emergency patient who should have followed your treatment advice months ago, fighting to gain a sense of control over your life only to fear that you’re losing the battle….STOP. Good mental hygiene pays off. It’s not easy but it is achievable, pain-free and even enjoyable. If you can take two minutes once or twice a day to brush your teeth, you can make time to brush your brain.
Dr. Haller provides training for leadership effectiveness, interpersonal communication, conflict management, and team building. If you would like to learn more contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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