Each one of us is like that butterfly, the Butterfly Effect. And each tiny move toward a more positive mindset can send ripples of positivity through our organisations, our families and our communities.
—Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage
Mindset refers to a pattern of thinking and beliefs we hold about ourselves. These thinking patterns are hugely influential in determining our emotions, our behaviours, and our perception of the world. Developing a resilient mindset for dental professionals means fostering thinking patterns that allow us to adapt and weather stress or challenges at work. This type of mindset also allows us to grow through obstacles and thrive. In this chapter, we delve into the ‘R’ of the PERLE Resilience Model, spotlighting how dental professionals can apply the interesting insights from the psychology of mindset to work. Specifically, I refer to three types of mindset that are beneficial for dental professionals: optimistic, compassionate, and growth.
A useful way of thinking about mindsets is that our thought patterns lie somewhere along a continuum – with one end representing optimistic, compassionate, and growth orientated, and the other end pessimistic, critical, and fixed. We may be critical in certain areas of our lives but more growth orientated in others. The good news is, no matter where we lie on the continuum, we can shift towards positive mindsets that boost positive emotions and positive actions.
Before we can delve into nurturing these three mindsets in dentistry, we start with exploring the psychology of thinking and recognising our own thinking traps.
The Board of Directors That Lives in Our Head
A common misunderstanding around our thoughts is our belief that they are accurate. In fact, our brain generates automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) whenever any event happens. This includes mental images that are spontaneous, fleeting, often feel unquestionable, and reflect core beliefs we formed as a child. I like to think of ANTs as a board of directors that lives in our head. Not always useful but trying to take control of the situation. ANTs were evolved to keep us safe from predators. However, in today’s modern world, these ‘directors’ are more like thinking traps that can hijack our brains. Increasing our awareness of which thinking trap we fall into is the first step to nurturing resilient thinking.
Types of Thinking Traps
Thinking traps, otherwise known as cognitive distortions, are unhelpful patterns of thinking that are often inaccurate and negatively biased. Researchers have identified many thinking traps. The most common thinking traps for dental professionals are summarised in Figure 8.1. Do any of the thinking traps resonate? When I coach dental professionals, I notice that catastrophising is the most common thinking trap, including the ‘me’ trap.
Understanding Our Triggers
Self‐awareness of our triggers for specific thinking traps is essential in regulating our emotions. A common trigger in dentistry may be receiving an unclear message from your work colleagues, such as your receptionist leaving a message to say that a patient wants you to call back, without giving further details. This scenario is one that could quite quickly trigger a runaway catastrophic spiral of thoughts, leading to a General Dental Council (GDC) complaint, all in the space of a few anxious seconds. Other triggers for stress include situations we fear, such as when we are in the middle of complex treatments with our patients, when we are managing a difficult patient, when something we value highly is at stake, or when we are exhausted.
Contrary to popular belief, CBT can be used for both mental illness and to enhance resilience and well‐being. CBT is not only for those who are unwell. The thinking‐behavioural model (cognitive behavioural therapy; see Figure 8.2) has a special place in psychology in highlighting an important relationship: our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Underpinning these three strands are our deep‐rooted underlying core beliefs about ourselves, the world, and other people. As a child, our core beliefs helped us navigate the world and are translated into behaviour or coping strategies. They fall under three categories: helplessness, lovability, and worth. Although they helped us in the past, our fallback strategies may not be so useful as an adult.
There is an enormous amount of evidence to support the CBT model. This research shows that although changing our behaviours is one mighty task, we can influence our thoughts. This can indirectly impact our emotions and thereby our actions. When we think about adversities, having the tool to be flexible with our thinking is very useful. Resilient thinking can buffer us from getting stuck in negative thoughts and help us to shift our attention to thoughts that will help us thrive.
Applying Your ABCs
Understanding how our thoughts and emotions influence how we act can be a very powerful way of preventing being messed around by the events in our life. One way we can do this is using the ABCDE approach (Ellis 1962, 1976; Seligman 1991).
Here are ways we can dispute our unhelpful thoughts:
- Examining the evidence: Take your thoughts to court! Reflect on the evidence for and against this thought. How accurate is this thought? Start fleshing out your response using the sentence, ‘That’s not true because…’ Really pad this out with real concrete examples that counteract the accuracy of the negative thought.
- Reframing the unhelpful thought: This involves thinking of ways of thinking about the scenario in a more positive, helpful way. You can use the statement, ‘A more helpful way of thinking about this is…’ to help you challenge a negative perspective.
- Planning a backup: Think about a backup plan if that thought does indeed come true using the sentence, ‘If this happens I will…’