It’s all too common that we avoid healthy changes towards wellness because they push us outside our comfort zones. Whether we’re starting a new workout, updating our diet, or improving our interpersonal relationships, healthy change involves some level of anxiety and discomfort.
For many, dental anxiety is one of these major hurdles. While securing dental insurance can pose a complex barrier to oral health, data shows that millions of Canadians are avoiding routine dental work out of anxiety-induced fear. Nearly 15 million Canadians — 40% of the population! — have a fear of the dentist such that it prevents them from going for screenings or routine care.
Oral health is an essential part of overall health, and overcoming anxiety symptoms associated with visiting the dentist is a critical form of self-care. (Sorry, binging Netflix and cat videos won’t do the trick!)
Why is dental anxiety so common?
A cruel irony of avoiding routine checkups is that you’re likely to pay for that neglect later with invasive emergency dental treatments. At that point, your anxiety may seem like it was proportional to the experience. However, seeing a dentist for routine care might have prevented the need for invasive procedures in the first place.
From my own experience with clients working through dental anxiety, I’ve found there isn’t one glaring reason people fear the dentist. Rather it’s more of a combination of expectations and fears coming together.
Societal stereotypes: TV shows, movies, parents, and siblings all paint a scary picture of what going to the dentist is like. Stereotypes about the dentist often start at an early age and are easy to find everywhere.
Past experiences (often at a young age): A scary or painful experience at the dentist — especially as a child — can stick with us throughout our entire life if we don’t address the problem.
Fear of discomfort: Many dental procedures can be painful, especially if the dentist doesn’t explain the treatment or offer proper numbing options. Plus, drilling, grinding, and scraping can feel strange and uncomfortable.
Lack of control: There’s something about laying on our back with our mouth open while a doctor digs around that just gets to us. A high level of trust is essential.
Shame: Some folks who neglect their dental health often feel embarrassed or shameful about the condition of their oral health.
Tips for Overcoming Dental Anxiety
Overcoming a phobia or event-related anxiety takes time. They don’t occur overnight and they aren’t resolved overnight. Here’s a list of strategies to get you started:
1. Run a Cost-Benefit Analysis. Focus on the pros of visiting the dentist: a healthy mouth, a beautiful smile, improved heart health. Make a list and it’s easy to see that the pros far outweigh the cons.
2. Communicate and Build Trust. Most dentists know that people are afraid of them. Most are happy to chat through email or a phone call about any specific fears and insecurities. Building trust and comfort is key. Desensitize yourself by asking the dentist or staff to walk you through the process step-by-step. Staff should understand and want to help.
3. Source Multiple Experiences. Those of us with anxiety tend to overgeneralize, jump to irrational conclusions, and turn into catastrophists. Laws of probability and rationality go right out the window. In this era of online reviews, a single negative review can cost a business 22% of potential customers — even if 99% of the reviews are glowing! We tend to overvalue bad press. Ask multiple people for their most recent dental experience (and don’t pry for bad press).
4. Ask about Pain Management. Dentists understand dental anxiety and have the tools to help patients cope with pain. Be vocal about any concerns and ask detailed questions. If a dentist doesn’t seem to care, go somewhere else.
5. Plan a Sedation Strategy. Sedation dentistry has come a long way over the past decade. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas), pill sedation, and general anesthesia offer various levels to meet each patient’s needs.
6. Try Distraction Techniques. Many modern dentist offices come equipped with iPads, tablets, and TVs to help patients distract themselves during uncomfortable treatments. Progressive muscle relaxation exercises and an awesome Spotify playlist can help tremendously.
7. Talk to a Therapist. Therapy can also be valuable to address dental anxiety that helps you get to the root of the problem. Many people find techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) very effective.
Dental anxiety doesn’t have to be permanent. By laying the groundwork, we can ensure success and have positive experiences at the dentist’s office moving forward. Everyone deserves a healthy smile, and changing our mindset can help make wellness a reality.
Several years ago, I received a speeding ticket while rushing to get to my regular yoga class. The class was important to me as it was part of my self-care regimen.
The combination of poor planning plus an inability to accept that I just wasn’t going to make it to class that day brought me to an important realization: self-care, or at least a hyper-focus on a self-care routine, can sometimes become counter-productive.
How Important Is Self-Care?
Self-care is essential for reducing stress and all its associated problems, both physical and mental.
That said, not everyone understands what it really is and many people aren’t sure what to do.
Here are a few places to start:
Dr. Kristen Neff offers some great advice in her book, Self Compassion. Her TED talks are also helpful. Guy Winch’s, Emotional First Aid, is another book that I recommend as well as his TED talks. For some further reading, I recommend this piece on self-care in the digital age and this list of self-care ideas.
Creating your own self-care regimen will help you to develop and maintain positive mental health and wellness.
You’ve Got This!
Self-care for ourselves or others can be deliberate and planned, but often we’ve already built some self-care into our daily routines. Going to the movies, talking to a close friend, or taking time to read a book can all be acts of self-care.
Self-Care vs. Self-Sabotage
Sometimes, we find ourselves avoiding discomfort by hiding under the guise of self-care. It can often prevent us from showing up, growing up, and increasing our self-efficacy and self-esteem. For example, is it self-care or avoidance if you take a break from study during finals? It’s a trick question, really, because it could be both.
On one hand, a break will give you some much-needed respite so that you can regroup and come back to your study with fresh eyes. On the other hand, too many breaks or breaks that last too long can be procrastination. It’s important to remember that avoidance keeps you stuck and prevents you from connecting to your feelings.
Ask Yourself: Is This Self-Care or Avoidance?
If the activity feels nourishing, helps you grow, and moves you forward towards your goal, it is self-care. If it takes you away from your goal, then it’s avoidance. Using techniques such as mindfulness can help you to acknowledge your feelings, and understand rather than avoid them.
Make 2019 the year you fine-tune your self-care routine (and avoid nasty surprises like speeding tickets).
Many of us have a list in our minds of the things we want, and most of us go through life trying to get these things. Sometimes we rely on our beliefs as a roadmap on this journey –follow these rules and you’ll be enlightened, be happier and have healthier relationships. I used to think that there was a secret recipe to life, and when things are going great, I do tend to think I have it all figured out. However, reality eventually sets in when we realize that’s not always the case, and when that reality hits, we turn inwards and think that something is wrong with us because if nothing was wrong, we’d be getting what we want. Right?
When life isn’t easy or when we are dealing with a major transition we often look for the ‘bad guy’ and sometimes blame ourselves or our partners instead of turning towards each other or asking for help. An all-too-common negative dialogue emerges where we think, “I must be a bad person or a failure because [insert reasons here].”
That ‘looking for the bad guy tendency arises during periods of transition when we are overwhelmed, scared, or uncertain. However, I want to remind some of you that transitions are hard because they are opportunities for growth and growth is hard.
“Life opens up opportunities to you, and you either take them or you stay afraid of taking them.” — Jim Carrey
Marina Keegan wrote a wonderful article on her perspective of what her university experience meant for her. Although graduating university, much like starting university, can be a difficult period of transition; it is both natural and expected. It should, in fact, be something we aim for.
Some transitions are marked as natural development for many of us unless interrupted and then problems can emerge with some sort of pathology. Some transitions happen unexpectedly: loss of child, being diagnosed with Cancer, losing one’s job. Then sometimes that “find the bad guy tendency” arises and we need to deal with it.
No matter the type of transition you are struggling with, I find it helps to take a moment to breathe and reflect on what is happening before moving forward. Whatever that new you or situation looks like: Stop, Breathe, and, Reflect. By reflecting we help clarify how far we have come and it helps to recognize our own strengths and areas of growth and future growth. Reflection can also allow us a time to see if we are moving in a direction that corresponds with our values. Many of us fail to reflect and end up having a life based on being reactive and non reflective vs living life inline with our values.
Some tips to help navigate transitions and avoid ‘finding the bad guy’ tendency:
1. Go back to get to the future
Sometimes we need to think about passed struggles we have dealt with and how we overcame them. What skills or resources you’ve used that helped or didn’t help you. And then think about your current situation and see if these same character strengths or skills may help you deal with your current situation. Con with this technique: some people keep using the same strategies and don’t try to develop new ones.
2. Remember to ABC which means: Always Be Curious.
Things that help us be curious is having an open mind. Another thing that helps us to be curious is asking ourselves questions that force us to think about alternative solutions and ways of doing things. Noticing emotions and really questioning where they are coming from and what they are telling us may help us deal with the current situation. Con with technique: Overusing this technique so that you end up navel gazing and it prevents you from taking the leap or making a choice.
3. Learn to ride the Wave
You may not be able to change your course or whatever event you are dealing with and you may need to grab onto some coping skills and hold tight. Some may find learning mindfulness or learning to connect with the support system as 2 ways that help people ride the wave when dealing with a particularly hard transition. Con: Some people will ride the wave and end back at the same place they started at. When dealing with transitions sometimes we have to accept things will not go back to how they use to be.
Moving from one of life’s milestones to the next can be exciting, but if you are struggling with it, remember that it is a normal reaction and there are ways of managing it. For example, if you are unhappy with your job and are thinking of taking a leap to something new, you may be interested in Barbara Hagerty’s article here that talks about the upside of making a mid-life transition. If you like the article I would suggest you read her book, Life Reimagined. Instead of relying on finding the bad guy try one of the above techniques, read Barbara’s article or book and see if it helps or perhaps considering booking a session to process your life transition in counselling.