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Mindful Practices for a Relaxing Dental Checkup

Although dental visits don’t rank very high on anyone’s list of fun things to do, coming in regularly for exams and cleanings is one of the best things you can do to keep all dental visits to a minimum.

That’s because these appointments are preventive. They’re about lowering your risk of decay, gum disease, and other dental woes (not to mention the systemic health problems linked to poor oral health). They’re about spotting any emerging problems as early as possible, when they’re easier and less expensive to treat.

But for some people, any kind of dental appointment is more than just not-fun. It’s a cause of anxiety. Roughly one-third of Americans are scared of the dentist. For 12%, that fear is extreme.

It’s important to us to make sure that each patient who comes to us for dental care is as comfortable as possible at every visit. We provide calming homeopathic remedies. We offer NuCalm, which combines supplements with microcurrent stimulation and sound therapy to induce a sustained relaxation response – no laughing gas (nitrous oxide) or pharmaceutical drugs needed. We listen to your needs and do all we can to ensure a positive experience for you.

There’s another tool you can use, too: mindfulness.

Research has found that patients who practice mindfulness tend to be less anxious about dental visits. But what exactly is meant by “mindfulness”?

The word may conjure visions of someone sitting cross-legged in meditation, perhaps “om-ing” or just trying to empty their mind. That’s one way of fostering mindfulness, but it’s not mindfulness itself.

Mindfulness simply means being aware of what’s happening in the current moment, perceiving your physical feelings and thoughts and emotions without judgment. Many specific activities can help direct your focus in this way. One of the easiest is controlled breathing.

According to Christina DiBona Pastan, the director of Mind-Body Wellness and assistant clinical professor of endodontics at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, “diaphragmatic breathing is probably the most effective, easiest way to ease…anxiety. It’s called the three-part breath. It uses the diaphragm, the lungs, and then the upper chest.

You start by breathing from the belly, into your lungs, and then you lift your collarbone as you breathe into your chest. Then you exhale on a long slow breath that’s twice as long as the inhale. It engages the parasympathetic nervous system, and it’s a very conscious and effective way to relax the body, the nervous system, and to focus the mind.

“Everybody has to breathe,” DiBona Pastan adds. “Just focusing on your in-breath and your out-breath as an anchor distracts the mind so that you’re not sitting with your thoughts.”

Here are some other mindfulness practices that patients have found helpful for tamping down their dental anxiety:

  1. Visualization. Picture a peaceful natural setting – anyplace you find soothing. Perhaps it’s a shallow stream deep in the green of a forest. Maybe it’s a large meadow of wildflowers under seemingly endless sky. Perhaps it’s the dark, sparkly sand of a lakeshore. Engage all your senses. Imagine the scents and sounds. Imagine the feeling of dragging your hand through the water or cradling a single blossom in your hand. The more detail your mind can conjure, the more your focus will let you sustain a sense of calmness.
  2. Progressive Relaxation. Physical tension commonly accompanies stress and anxiety. This is a way to release it. Start by tensing the muscles of your face. Hold it for a few seconds and then relax. Do the same as you move down your body – neck, shoulders, arms, gut…all the way to your toes. Not only do you get the physical relaxation but, again, your focus stays on the moment, not on your fear.
  3. Engage Your Senses. Familiar scents, sounds, and textures can provide distraction, comfort, and a sense of security. Maybe you have a soft blanket or plushie that you could bring to your appointment. Or a scented item. Put together a playlist of feel-good songs and keep your earbuds in or headphones on. Audiobooks and podcasts can also be great for focusing your attention.
  4. Affirmations. Find the positive self-talk that works best for you. An affirmation that one person thinks is hokey may be powerful for someone else. Repeat your affirmations silently to yourself while you’re in the dental chair: I am calm. I am in control. I trust my dentist and his team. I am strong and resilient and taking good care of myself by getting regular checkups and cleanings. Reinforcing positive thoughts in this way shifts your mindset from fear to confidence.

One more thing you can do to ease dental anxiety? Simply talk with us. Let us know your feelings and concerns so we can adjust the dental experience to meet your needs. Your feelings matter. Your comfort matters. We want every patient’s experience here in our office to be a positive one.