Meditating at the Dentist in 5 Steps

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I don’t floss as often as I should. And I try not to use the word ‘should’, but I think it’s appropriate in this context. My dentist and hygienist tell me to pay attention to flossing every time I’m there.

Today was no different. I had my teeth cleaned. Don’t worry, things are looking good.

But seriously, who actually enjoys going to the dentist? (If you do, feel free to email me and tell me so. Really.)

I find myself tense before and during my trip. So today I decided to use my visit as an opportunity to practice some mindfulness. I wanted to see if I could use some meditation tools to help me get through with less stress and a deeper connection to myself. I think it worked. And I came back with five steps that any of us can turn to while in the chair.

1. Check in with your body

I can’t tell you how many times every day I catch myself tensed up without realizing it. (Those moments of catching are mindfulness wins, so if you have them, give yourself a high five.) In the dentist chair is no different. While you’re sitting back, take time to scan your body to find any areas of tension. Today, the biggest culprits were my hands. I kept squeezing them into fists or clenching on my legs. For no apparent reason, really, except to release some anxiety. And once I found them tensed up, it took only a little effort to relax them, and in doing so, relax my entire body.

Find where you’re holding tension and see if you can gently let it go.

2. Notice your thoughts – are they adding to the discomfort?

During every visit my hygienist scrapes my teeth with her little sharp tool, breaking up whatever landed there since my last visit. And at some point during every visit my brain starts to imagine some painful situation in which she accidentally stabs me or hits some weird nerve in my tooth. (Now you see why my hands were tense.) Of course, she’s never done that. She’s a professional.

Crazy thoughts are going to run through our heads, and it’s a fools game to try to push them away. But the more we’re able to see them as they arise the more we can begin to control our body’s response. In my case, I was anticipating a feeling of pain, so my body was preparing for it. As soon as I noticed the thought and let it pass by, things calmed down inside.

Where does your brain go? Are your thoughts creating discomfort?

3. Come back to your breath

Whenever I find myself caught up in stories in my mind, I return attention to my breathing. Because it is always there for me to find, no matter what’s going on inside or outside of me. And that’s why the breath is such a wonderful tool for meditation. We can’t run away from it.

If, when you come back to your breath, you find that you’re holding it, just let it go. See if that releases any tension. (It will.) And try taking three deep breaths through your nose to help ease things even more. And just keep your attention lightly there as long as you’re able.

Your breath is your anchor to the present. Find it and rest your attention there.

4. Notice opportunities to help

I used to feel awkward at the dentist, not sure how wide to open my mouth, worried that I’d drool everywhere. The whole bit. And that would add more to my anxiety. Today, I just sat back and noticed how my hygienist worked. In what order did she clean things? How did she position her hand to reach a certain area? Did she have to adjust my mouth or tongue?

And the more I noticed, the more I was able to anticipate where she was going and what she planned to do. So suddenly, I was able to make subtle movements to help her out (or at least it felt like I was helping). And as an active participant, it was all less scary. I wasn’t worried about being in the way or thinking about getting bad news, but was a small force for good.

Notice the rhythm of your dentist’s work. How can you join in?

5. Listen actively to your hygienist and dentist

During and after my cleaning, I was given some great, expert advice about keeping my teeth and gums in good shape. We all know we’re supposed to brush and floss, but small pieces of knowledge can be lost if we aren’t open to learning something new. During my last visit they told me to pay more attention to one particular area when brushing. Thankfully, I listened and they both took notice. I even asked more questions about how to keep things healthy because they’re the experts!

Every interaction is an opportunity to be an active participant in our lives. We can pass up these chances, or we can choose to be present to what’s available to learn.

We get to talk with these experts every six months or so. Be mindful in your communication and see how much you learn.

I’m not sure every dentist appointment in my life will be as pleasant as the one I had today. And believe me, my brain sometimes tells me they’ll be much worse. But if we stick to some of these tools, we can make our trips to the dentist (or doctor or whatever) more pleasant and beneficial for everyone.

And make sure you remember to floss.

Photo credit: Lotus Carroll via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA