Alex Barrera, DDS, talks about the importance of self-care for dentists and how it reduces stress, prevents burnout, and facilitates a fulfilling career.
Q: You are both a yoga instructor and a dentist. What led to you becoming a yoga instructor, and how has that changed the way you practice dentistry?
A: I first discovered yoga as a stressed-out dental student. I was looking for a way to decompress while also moving my body. I was a complete beginner at first, but after graduating dental school, I slowly began taking more yoga classes. What started as a hobby eventually became a passion as I began to notice the changes yoga was making in my life. Physically, my body started feeling better, and I avoided the aches and pains that are common to a dentistry career. Mentally, I started feeling lighter, calmer, and less anxious. Yoga helped me understand and uncover parts of myself I had hidden away for so long. I eventually decided to complete a 200-hour yoga teacher training program and started teaching yoga in 2021. Becoming a yoga teacher has had a significant impact on the way I view and practice dentistry. For one, it has allowed me to become more patient and understanding with both my patients and my staff. It has allowed me to become more aware of my emotions and reactions so that I can logically deal with them instead of letting them spiral out of control. And lastly, the physical benefits of yoga have allowed me to work pain-free without any limitations.
Q: Why is it important for dentists to prioritize wellness?
A: According to the ADA’s 2021 Dentist Health and Well-Being Report, a majority of dentists have stated experiencing moderate or severe stress at work. As a result, many of us are dealing with anxiety, burnout, substance use disorders, and other conditions that may impair our abilities to practice at our best. The percentage of dentists diagnosed with anxiety more than tripled in 2021 compared to 2003, and we sadly continue to see the rate of suicide remain steady in our profession. It is time that we change the culture of how we practice dentistry. This profession does not have to be something stressful or overwhelming. We cannot always prevent things like burnout, back pain, and struggles with mental health. However, one thing that may help is to be honest with ourselves about our needs and set aside regular time for rest and self-maintenance. It is specifically important for new dentists to prioritize wellness because as life expectancy increases, so does the length of our careers. We may be working longer than the generation before us, so how can we ensure that we continue to feel happy and healthy throughout our lives?
Q: How does taking care of one’s wellness benefit a dentist’s practice of dentistry?
A: As healthcare professionals, taking care of our own mental and physical health helps us better care for others. When we focus on our well-being, we can better understand our triggers when it comes to stress and anxiety. Once we better understand ourselves, we are able to prevent outbursts of emotions that might lead to saying the wrong thing or making poor decisions. When we show up to work rested and fulfilled, we can better serve our patients and set an example to our staff of what it means to be well.
Q: How can dentists prevent burnout?
A: When most people think of self-care, what they are actually thinking of is “self-soothing.” Self-soothing feels good at the moment. It could be a massage, a vacation, or even spending time with a loved one. But true self-care shouldn’t be a one-time fix. It should be a regular part of our lives so that we can continue to show up as the best versions of ourselves. Our society tells us we can only be one thing and must be exceptional at it, but that isn’t realistic. We need to understand that there is more than one way to be a dentist. We can be driven without succumbing to comparison. We can work hard without leading to exhaustion. I always urge dentists to find more than one thing that makes them happy and to make time for rest. Having hobbies that allow us to feel creative rather than only doing things we “need” to do can teach us how to enjoy things again so that we can better show up for our patients, our families, and ourselves.
Dr. Barrera is a general dentist and practices at Legacy Community Health Center in Houston. He is a member of various organizations, including the ADA, Hispanic Dental Association, Greater Houston Dental Association, and the Houston Equality Dental Network. He is the president and co-founder of the Houston Equality Dental Network, an organization that aims to improve the oral health of LGBTQ+ people through awareness, education, advocacy, and service. Dr. Barrera is a graduate of the ADA’s Institute for Diversity in Leadership and currently serves as a Wellness Ambassador for the ADA. As an ambassador, he serves as a peer support contact for dentists struggling with things like burnout, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. He works toward incorporating his passion for yoga with dentistry by providing yoga classes and ergonomic exercises that can help alleviate common aches and pains that come with a career in dentistry. Dr. Barrera was recognized by the ADA in 2023 as a “10 Under 10” Award recipient and was awarded the Health Equity Hero award by DentaQuest in 2022. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.