Overcoming Trauma At The Dentist’s Office

I had to go to the dentist recently. Apparently, an old filling needed some fixing and my new dentist was much more proactive in terms of cavity filling than my old one. My old dentist was of the opinion that, if it was minor and not growing due to improved dental hygiene habits, then it didn’t need to be filled unless it was causing pain or discomfort or was poised to grow rapidly into something terrible instead of slowly growing worse. That made sense to me, as someone who had poor dental hygiene habits early in life but eventually grew into a collection of very good dental habits, but my new dentist is much less convinced. And far more persuasive than my last one, given that she was able to sell me on getting the fillings.

What makes this significant and worth writing about for reasons other than the misguided assumption that the universe at large cares about my day-to-day life, is that I hate getting dental work done. My childhood dentist did not believe in sensitive teeth, never attempted to address the pain I felt during dental procedures as someone with sensitive teeth in any appreciable way, and wrote off all my complaints and efforts to avoid pain as the normal complaints of a child who doesn’t want to be stuck in a chair. Given my personal situation at the time, I did my best as a child and teenager to endure it, but it left a lasting negative impression on me that endures to this day, even after a few years of actually good dental care with dentists and dental hygienists who take my concerns seriously. Which is, you know, a trauma response.

What really put it in perspective for me was the realization that while I may have been using meditative techniques to make my breathing even, stay physically still, and remain outwardly calm, I was actually disassociating during the work itself. I don’t remember any of the time when the work was being done, just the early bits where I was getting adequately numbed up and walked through the process my dentist was about to embark upon. It wasn’t painful, it wasn’t terribly traumatic itself, but being in a dentist’s chair while the painfully familiar whir of a dentist’s implements fills the air is apparently enough to drive me right outside of myself. Honestly, the meditation and embodying techniques I used are probably the only thing that kept me conscious and coherent in retrospect.

When you’re working through PTSD in the type of therapy I’m doing, called EMDR, you and your therapist spend time coming up with a series of techniques for self-management. Containering is a technique for putting away all of the potentially traumatic thoughts you’re working through between sessions, and it’s very useful for dealing with temporary anxiety as well. There’s another technique, which I have forgotten the name for, to help you combat disassociation that would be detrimental to your attempts to process trauma during therapy that you couldn’t handle while it was occurring. My therapist and I came up with a word that I don’t use commonly and attached it to a specific mental construct that had a connection to all of my senses and reflected a moment that I always felt calmed and embodied by. For therapy, mine was the word “Melancholy” and the mental construct is sitting beside a partially-open window on a chilly, rainy day as the rain pounds against the roof overhead. While I keep that word and this specific technique for only therapy sessions and panic attacks, the process of embodying yourself by activating your senses is one I use more generally during meditation and apparently dental work.

Typically, when you’ve been traumatized by something, you try to avoid similar scenarios until you’ve had the opportunity to process the trauma. Unfortunately, if you want to keep your teeth healthy, you have to keep going to the dentist. I tried not going for a very long time and while I did have good dental habits, they weren’t always perfect and I did not receive corrections until I finally started going to the dentist again. So now I make sure to go every six months to avoid future problems and do my best to overcome my dental trauma as on-going care (wisdom tooth extraction, putting a crown on a cracked tooth, and then this recent filling work) happens without pain or significant discomfort. Honestly, my back and hands hurt worse than my mouth did, because of how clenched my hands were for the entire process and how my back muscles kept cramping in the dentist’s chair (gonna skip arm and back workouts on future dentist days).

Still, it is a slow process, recovering from yet another source of trauma from my childhood, but I think I’m glad I’ve been doing it side-by-side with my work on the trauma from my parents and brother. After all, it’s nice to have an example of what it’s like to work through trauma with someone who recognizes you were traumatized and is not only patient with you, but actively working to help you feel safe and comfortable. Like a therapist for my teeth.

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