Winter 2016

Less Stress

Emphasis on mind-body wellness aims to ease the path for busy students

By Julie Flaherty

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Photo: Ingimage.com

Christina Pastan’s road to becoming the dental school’s first director of mind-body wellness began three years ago, when the assistant clinical professor of endodontics watched one of her students, a second-year resident, prep for surgery. The very competent student was having a panic attack. Pastan, a longtime practitioner of mediation and yoga, asked, “Would you be open to me teaching you how to breathe?” Together, they went through a calming breathing exercise.

The surgery went smoothly, and the student thanked Pastan, saying, “In all my years of dental training, no clinical instructor has looked at me as a human being with a struggle. You may have taught me today the most valuable skill I’ve learned in dental school.”

At the time, Pastan, D91, DG94, had been a volunteer instructor at the dental school for more than 20 years, but the experience with this particular student convinced her that she had something else she could give back.

Pastan completed a yoga instruction certification program at the prestigious Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and then approached Robert Kasberg, associate dean of admissions and student affairs, with the idea of introducing dental students to this ancient healing practice. Soon she was a guest speaker in Pamela Maragliano-Muniz’s Introduction to the Dental Patient III class, leading the lecture hall full of students in a session of meditation and chair yoga.

“You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others.” —Christina Pastan

Embracing the idea of helping students manage the inherent stresses of pursuing a dental degree, the school hired Pastan and made mind-body wellness part of the course of study for all students. She is collaborating with Ellen Patterson, director of interprofessional education, on threading wellness throughout the four-year curriculum and developing student research projects around the effects of mind-body practices on student stress.

Pastan knows all too well about the stress of being a dentist. A few years into her dental career, she began to feel burned out. “I hit a wall,” she says. A family friend referred her to the physician and researcher Herbert Benson, an expert on the negative effects of stress on the body and how to counteract them. Benson taught her about meditation and self-regulation. “It got me at a point early in my professional life to use these practices to ground me.” One of Pastan’s first moves in her new role was to bring Benson to speak to the newest dental students, the Class of 2019, last August.

Did every student enjoy meditating? No, says Pastan, and that’s normal. “Most people are going to say it’s difficult, or it’s not comfortable, because they are not used to it. The first time you pick up your dental instruments, that feels uncomfortable as well.” That, she says, is why it is called a “practice.” But whether or not students go on to be yogis, knowing some basic techniques can help them learn how to breathe through cutting their amalgam preparation, or to stay calm during a practical.

To introduce the curriculum to faculty and staff, the clinic was closed on Aug. 26, 2015, for a development day, when international Kripalu yoga teacher, researcher and author Stephen Cope talked about the ways that such programs have benefited health-care providers and educators. Pastan followed the presentation with a chair yoga class. She will be leading more yoga classes—starting with a weekly class for students—throughout the year as well as optional meditation sessions before final exams.

First and foremost, Pastan wants students—and faculty—to know that good health-care providers need to pay attention to their own health. Stressed doctors will have stressed patients. “You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others,” she says.

Contact Julie Flaherty at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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