Feeling anxious at the dentist is a common emotion. I feel anxious when I am a patient at the dental office, even though I am a dentist myself and I know I have nothing to be fearful about.
The emotions that arise, and how we react to different situations are influenced by many factors such as past experiences, our upbringing, general nature and beliefs.
When I was 5 years old, I had my first tooth extraction due to bad decay. This was when I was still living in Vietnam. I was very scared and literally jumped out of the dental chair and ran out of the dental office. My mother was very embarrassed and she disapproved of my behaviour. She was angry with me. She threatened never to speak to me again. This really saddened me and I walked back into the dental office and got my first tooth removed. I cried the whole way. Until this day I can still recall this vividly in my mind, like watching a movie scene many times.
When I arrived in Australia, I visited the dentist for the second time at the age of 10. I did not speak any English. I was accompanied by a care worker as my parents had to go to school to learn English. The tooth that the dentist worked on was my lower first molar. He had to do a deep filling. Although the dentist gave me an injection of anaesthetic, the tooth was not numb. I raised my hand many times to let him know I was in pain and initially he stopped to check on me but eventually just kept going. I cried. I still remember those feelings, I remember the green walls of the cubicles that the dental chair was in, I remember the smell. I was scared and I felt helpless because I could not communicate.
This tooth now has a crown, and it can never be numbed. I’ve had many dentists work on this tooth, no one has successfully anaesthetised it but as an adult now I don’t feel as helpless but I am still apprehensive.
So you see, I’ve not had good experiences at the dentist. Since my first experience, I have accumulated memories of fear, pain, humiliation, and even some element of loneliness. As though no one in the world understands this fear.
How do I cope now? Well.. I practice mindfulness in my daily life, and I apply this practice when I go to the dentist. Mindfulness just means having awareness in the present moment. I recognise the feelings of anxiety when they arise. I call them by their true name: I feel anxious because I am at the dentist. I feel anxious because of what has happened to me in the past, I feel anxious because I am fearful that the procedure will cause me discomfort. I don’t think feeling anxious is a bad thing. It serves to protect us. Helps us make good decisions for ourselves. When I feel anxious, I acknowledge it. With the energy of mindfulness I smile to it and I bring upon the energy of compassion to care for it. Gone are the days when I would judge and ridicule how I feel or belittle myself for feeling scared. Now I am there with my anxiety. Being there doesn’t mean dwelling on it. It means to be there in a sense of supporting my whole self.
It is amazing how one feels when they are acknowledged. So if you can acknowledge your own feelings, and if your dentist and their team can acknowledge them, this is a good start.
How I take care of myself during moments of anxiety is to ground myself in the present moment, to return to my breath. Breathing in I know I am breathing in. Breathing out I know I am breathing out. Breathing in I know I am safe, breathing out I feel safe. I then can look at my anxiety as an object of my mind. Being in the present moment prevents me from replaying my childhood fears, or imagining a terrifying future. It keeps me in the now where I am safe.
This is what I consider being mindfully anxious. I don’t ever ignore my feelings. I just choose to not let my feelings overtake the entire situation. I choose compassion, I choose deep listening to myself and to the moment, and I choose to be there.
Practice mindfulness every day – as then the energy of mindfulness will be there to support you during difficult times. It is very difficult to be mindful in trying times when it is not a habit.
Bao Nguyen – Dentist at Be Well Dental.