The other day I was in a dentist’s chair for two hours. There was drilling, grinding, polishing, glueing, grafting, washing, suctioning, and so on, and it became clear to me pretty early on that either I would find a way to relax or I’d be very uncomfortable for quite some time.
Fortunately, I realized that I had several tools from my research that could be helpful to me, and using them, I found I was able to be very comfortable the whole time. Some of the thanks goes to my dentist and dental assistant for their professionalism, but all the professionalism in the world doesn’t make it comfortable to have a needle pushed into the roof of your mouth–whereas other strategies can make this a bearable experience.
So here are the tools I used. These strategies are useful whenever it’s necessary to just wait through something that may be uncomfortable–not just appointments with the dentist–for instance plane takeoffs if you aren’t comfortable flying, or an overcrowded commute on a bus or subway.
1. Directing thoughts
Realistically, we don’t have many choices by the time we get to the dentist’s chair. Sure, if something seems to be going wrong that we think the dentist might be missing (an unusual situation), there might be a reason to raise one hand and make noises of distress, but that happens almost automatically, and other than that, we generally need to just sit still and open wide. Some uncomfortable situations require us to think and react, and those are not the kinds of situations I’m addressing in today’s article.
Knowing that there are no choices to be made, it becomes clear that “Oh no, this is going to hurt!” or “I can’t stand that drilling noise in my skull!” or any other negative idea is not going to be helpful, because negative thoughts are only helpful as indicators to help us change our behavior.
So it helps us to redirect our thoughts, in a way similar to how we might redirect a child who’s getting worked up about something that isn’t really causing problems. The basic technique amounts to “OK, but look at that over there!” We don’t have to squelch our negative thoughts, but we can acknowledge them without letting them drag us in. “Oh no, this is going to hurt!” can be followed up with “Yes, but then again, I seem to have survived everything that’s ever hurt in the past” and then focusing on something more interesting and pleasant, like plans for the weekend, a favorite book or movie, or whatever kind of thing keeps you interested.
2. Simple meditation
It’s easy to tense up in uncomfortable situations, but often a simple breath meditation can offer relief. To do this, don’t change your breathing itself, but instead focus your awareness lightly on breathing in, that moment of change when you go from inhaling to exhaling, breathing out, and the other moment of change when you go back to inhaling. It’s difficult to keep this up for a long time–though practice helps–but even with multiple interruptions or distractions can make the rest of the world recede while we become wrapped up in this serene activity.
3. Pay more attention, not less
As strange as it seems, often much of our suffering when we experience pain is fear of the very pain we’re experiencing, or of its consequences. After all, pain itself, like negative emotions, is just a signal that something might be going wrong. Pain is something that has developed because it’s useful to our survival: it helps us get clear of things before they cause too much damage. Unfortunately, sometimes we experience pain when things are actually fine, and at that point the more primitive parts of our brain panic. The more we try not to feel pain, the scarier it becomes.
So one useful approach when feeling pain is to really pay attention to it rather than mentally running away. What does it actually feel like? The process becomes a kind of meditation focused on the pain itself. This doesn’t make the pain go away, but surprisingly, it can relieve a lot of the suffering associated with it.
4. Keep the end in mind
It sometimes helps, when going through something difficult, to remember why you’re doing it. This is only useful if there’s something good waiting for you as a result, but this is often the case. Focusing on the relief a medical procedure will provide, on the friends or family waiting at the other end of a turbulent plane ride, or on the house you’ll eventually get to live in once you’ve filled out the unending paperwork for the loan can make an uncomfortable situation much more liveable by taking you out and placing you in a happier future.
The photo (which is not of me) is by The Doctr