I think if I took a poll on how high anxiety was, 1-10, when going to the dentist was even mentioned, most people would range in the 6-8 range. The what if’s are high at the dentist. What if it hurts. What if I have a cavity. What if it is something worse. And more. In my own experience, going to the dentist is very triggering. I honestly cannot imagine why it would not be. You are laying flat with someone over you with total control. At least it feels that way and always has. When I say triggering I mean I am often so full of anxiety and helplessness and fear that I am pushed straight into a seizure. I am triggered deep down inside myself to not a memory exactly but just a feeling that I don’t like. Perhaps it is because I am laying down with a person over me and I am filled with unknowns. Today I changed the dentist experience for myself and I hope by sharing my experience it can help anyone that has been through trauma, has PTSD, or just plain does not like going to the dentist.
In the past I have noticed my entire body is tense. Sometimes I have been sore for days after going to the dentist. I have even noticed my hands were clenched. My first task was to find something for my hands. I thought of something soft I could rub between my fingers but that didn’t really connect me to anything. Then I remembered my first trip to the beach in 15 years. That memory is one of the most peaceful I could think of. I posted the pictures below. I threw in the obligatory “foot beach pic” because for some reason everyone has one. I took it to be obnoxious to myself!! I posted it here just to make myself laugh. But my point is…the shells are what I chose to hold in my hands.
That was back in December 2016. I picked up some shells on that trip. I chose to bring the shells to the dentist. I put one in each pocket for each hand. I wanted them in my pockets so I could pull them out when I needed them. I held those shells and rubbed them and brought up the images and sounds in these pictures when I felt anxiety.
I drove my scooter in the office and kept it right next to me. My scooter in and of itself is security for me. Right outside the window was a magnolia tree that I focused on. I really wanted to keep my focus on the present and so anything I could find to stay focused would help. The magnolia worked perfectly, until I was upside down and then I focused on my shells and my imagery.
The hygentist came in first. Due to my instant PTSD triggers to cologne, I came prepared with a garbage bag to put over the top part of the chair and then a jacket to cover that. I know they wipe down the chairs but I still smell the cologne. I researched dentist chair covers and they are relatively inexpensive but I didn’t come up with this plan in time, so a garbage bag had to do. I told the hygentist I didn’t want to get any smells on me and she was perfectly accommodating to my draping of the chair! She put a little gauze with numbing in my cheek and here is the lovely photo I took of myself leaning against my jacket. ALSO, they put that bib around you with a chain to hook it. That chain smelled badly of cologne so I immediately tossed it on the counter and just tucked the bib in my shirt. The chain you see is my medical alert necklace.
Wow that is just a lovely picture of me isn’t it!!!! The square above my head would be my inability to take a picture on my cellphone! I rarely use a cellphone so I don’t know what I did wrong. The point of the photo is to show that a jacket with the hood draped over the headrest really isn’t that big of a deal. And to show that I am willing to post a very raw picture of me with no shame.
When the dentist came in I was very honest. I told her that I had PTSD. I told her that I had been sexually assaulted and abused and that I had some fears that I was hoping she could help me get through. And she was AWESOME!!! I told her that I needed her to tell me exactly what she was doing before she did it. I didn’t want any surprises. I didn’t want any noises or smells or movements without knowing what they were ahead of time. I didn’t wantto feel out of control We came up with a signal if I needed her to stop and I needed a moment. That brought back the control. She was not only accommodating to my request but gave me compassion. Told me how sorry she was that I went through that and that she would do everything she could to help me get through this filling. And she kept true to her word. I was brought to tears at her empathy and follow through of her promises. She even held my hand and comforted me. And my appointment was over. I got more understanding and respect from that dentist that at least a hundred people throughout my life. All it took was an extra 5 minutes for her to be willing to listen. And her ability to show that my feelings mattered.
1. Do you trust your dentist. You absolutely have to be able to trust that you can set up some safety measures and your dentist will accommodate them. I told my dentist what I needed to calm me. I needed her to tell me what she was doing before she did it.
2. Have a signal for your dentist that you both agree means stop.
3. If you have smell triggers then bring a towel or bag or jacket to put over the back of the chair so no potential smells will get on you and you won’t have to smell them as you are laying there.
4. Put a scent you like in your nostrils. I happen to like orange and so I just get a little bit or orange lip gloss and put it on my finger and put it in my nostrils.
5. Give your mind and hands and body a plan of what they can do instead of laying there tense. Hold anything of your choosing in your hands that you can rub or touch that can take you to a place in your mind of peace. It can be a stone, or a squishy ball, or a piece of cloth. Find something to focus on. Stare at it. Tell yourself in your mind everything about it, the texture, color, etc.
6. Breathe. Put a dot on your hand or a heart or something that everytime you look at it, it reminds you to breathe even deeper and relax.
7. I get cold easily. I wore long pants and a sweater so I didn’t start getting shaky.
8. The most important part of having a successful, non anxiety provoking, triggering experience at the dentist, is to know that you can communicate with your dentist and you will feel heard and respected.
9. I chose a woman dentist. I was most comfortable with a woman being over the top of my face. I have never had a woman dentist before. I felt it to be much more comforting than I anticipated.
I have had unpleasant dentist experiences ever since I was abused. This was the very first dentist experience that I have ever had where I felt that my experience mattered. I had to speak my wishes. My dentist had to respect those wishes. Both of those things happened. In the past it came down to my inability to tell the dentist what would make me most comfortable and would give me the least amount of anxiety. My last dentist was a man who wore cologne and got it on me. It was a set up for a fail to begin with! I had to be my own advocate and choose what was the best for my situation. It’s is hard to know what I want and what I need without being aware of my own body and mind. I had to really reflect on what would make me the most at ease and make a plan to make that happen. I want better things for my body and mind. I am it’s protector. I have to speak the words that will give me the security that I need to get through experiences that would otherwise be potentially triggering. I hope my dentist experience can give you a few ideas to help you through your next.