How to use mindfulness at the dentist

Using mindfulness at the dentist
I write a lot about mindfulness in the wider sense and its benefits but I thought it would be useful to start writing about how to use mindfulness in action at specific times. So today having a trip to the dentist was the perfect time to start.

My relationship with the dentist
So first of all let me tell you, I am petrified of the dentist. I don’t mean a little moan and  ‘Oh no here’s the dentist’. I mean full on panic attack, butterflies in stomach, deep breath, tears and shaky type petrification (I’m not sure if that’s a word but it sure says how I feel so I’m using it).
Why I’m scared of the dentist
Until I was 30 I  never minded going to the dentist and trotted along dutifully every six months for a check up and the odd filling.
Then about 10 years ago I had an experience with a dentist, where they drilled into a nerve. They don’t use the phrase ‘touched a nerve’ for nothing. It was a really strange experience, that I felt to my core. It wasn’t just pain but beyond pain, and I ended up having to stop the filling,  very shaky, and in tears.
I thought ‘what a bad experience’ and chalked it up to an awful time. However it had left its scars. When it came to my next dentist visit I found myself panicking about it weeks ahead, and then getting into the chair and being so scared, and so anxious.
Now it’s routine anxiety
I try to use all my mindful techniques and they do work but I still find myself anytime I go to the dentist ,particularly for a filling, feeling so anxious. First it starts with butterflies about a day before. (Before that I use the letting go of thoughts technique – so if I think about it then I don’t dwell on it or examine the thought, I just let it go).
Then when I get there I’m hot, a bit fluttery, and there’s a tightness across my chest. At this point I start slowing my breathing down through taking deep breaths. By the way I’m not even in the chair yet. Just the waiting room!
In the dentists chair
Even using those techniques I’d still built the whole thing up today. The main anxiety I have is relating to that grinding drill. The second one they use. That was what had been used to hit the nerve, so I am guessing my memory somewhere links them.
I started by deep breathing. By the way the dentist knows I’m nervous. I’ll come to what to do if your dentist isn’t very understanding in a moment.
So I’m in the chair doing my deep breathing and then he starts his work. My dentist explains everything to me so I know what’s going to happen. Turns  up today it was all too much and as soon as the treatment started I had a mild panic attack – struggling to get my breath, tears and shaking. At this point the deep breathing hadn’t worked. My dentist sat me up and gave me a moment.
My moment of mindfulness
The physical traits of anxiety for me are all about the breathing and rapid heart rate, so using mindfulness I brought awareness back to my breath and slowed it down again. I took deep breaths and accepted it was OK to feel anxious. Having fillings is not a particularly lovely task for anyone. Who loves getting a filling? (I suspect only dentists like the experience of fillings).
Then when I felt OK to continue I grounded myself in the moment. I did this by feeling my body in the chair and how it felt . The physical sensations, so the tingling in my feet. The slight discomfort as my back lay awkwardly in the chair.
I listened to the road noise, and the hum of something or other; an air conditioner or a fridge. I concentrated on a fixed spot on the. ceiling. I didn’t let the thoughts come in or judge any thoughts. So instead of constantly thinking ‘this is a horrible experience ‘, or ‘I’m going to go through the same thing again’ I gave myself self care through grounding myself, deep breathing and listening to other sounds.
My miserable dentist face complete with trout pout swollen lips! 🙂
Is it the experience itself?
So the experience itself isn’t pleasant. I had three injections. I still look like I’ve had a trout pout (see above for photographic evidence) . The noises coming from the drills sound like torture and you feel like you’re going to drown in your own saliva.
We can’t pretend it’s a pleasant experience can we? But it’s something to be endured to avoid losing all our teeth by the time we’re 45. It’s a difficult act of self love. Something you know you need to do but that’s not that pleasant. If we can turn it into a positive, by describing it as an act of self love, it can feel better.
Well I got through it. I was pleased I’d used mindfulness techniques during the ordeal, I mean experience. I also had the idea for the mindfulness in practice posts while I was in the chair so I suppose you could say this blog helped me too!
And if your dentist isn’t very understanding?
Don’t be afraid to ask for a change of dentist if they don’t get your anxiety. It’s important you feel supported and validated if you’re an anxious patient. I had to ask for a change of dentist recently. I had a great one before, very funny and that relaxed me. Then he left and was replaced by someone very cold, who didn’t even say hello when you entered the room.
 This did not help my anxiety and so I got up the courage to ask for a change. I explained very calmly and politely I didn’t feel the dentist was good for nervous patients, and I got a change. The new dentist whilst young enough to be my son (if if had children very young) is kind, and explains everything that’s happened and allows me to take breaks if needed.
After the visit
I found I was shaky and a bit wobbly. So I took five minutes just to sit in the car and take some further breaths. Anyone looking at me from afar would probably think I was in labour but it was important just to calm down, get my heartbeat back to normal and stop shaking! Quite important when ŷou;re in charge of a car!
Mindful techniques recap
So here’s what I used to help me in my visit to the dentist
  1. letting go of thoughts beforehand – rather than worrying about the pending visit, which I needed to have so I can have teeth that aren’t rotten, I didn’t let any thoughts linger. I’m good now after years of meditation and mindfulness at not thinking and worrying about some things far in advance. It’s like my brain knows not to worry about them. So it was only this morning that I had the butterflies (not good butterflies- equivalent of something like a killer moth). When I had thoughts about the visit , I didn’t start examining them, or thinking further on them. I let them go
  2. Breathing – just as you would in meditation, deep breathing is a brilliant way to calm anxiety because it slows everything down and helps you get the oxygen you need
  3. Grounding in the present – even though you might think you’d want to be floating have on a cloud whilst doing something horrible, if you can ground yourself in other experiences – using your sense of touch to experience how your body feels the chair, or your sense of hearing to hear the noises  out in the street, your brain is moving away from the other experience in your mouth
  4. Acceptance – at the end of the day going to the dentist is something we should all do – a bit like a smear test, or the test for prostate cancer. They’re not pleasant experiences by any means but they’re there to keep us healthy. I read a great quote today of an Indian Proverb which I’ll share here because it helped me: A man with his health has 1000 dreams; a man without only has one. How true is this? We take health for granted until we need it, then it’s all we think. Oral health is just as important and so I tell myself this is my act of self care (of course if I could stop bettering my body with sugar that would be a greater act of self care but I’m working on that).
  5. Reward – Yes there’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself after a difficult time. As a minimalist I don’t believe material things offer the reward I seek so checking out some new library books followed by a lukewarm (still got a mouth number than a pin cushion) cappuccino and time out in one of my favourite cosy cafes  Brew and Brownie is my reward

So do you have a difficult activity you have to do that you need to be mindful for?