Going to the dentist is difficult for many people. I just read an account of an adventurer in the jungle who was attacked by a tiger, and played with as prey for an hour. After he was rescued he said his ordeal was “less frightening than half an hour in the dentist’s chair.” !!
I have been experiencing a lot of dental trauma lately. Several teeth have had serious problems at the same time, and I am still in the middle of lots of invasive procedures—extractions, crowns, root canals, replacement of old crowns, implants. Yikes! It has been overwhelming.
There was one procedure in particular that was traumatic for me. I won’t go into details—I don’t want to traumatize you! It had to do with a three hour appointment that involved removing three old crowns, an invasive, intensely physical procedure that required lots of muscular wrenching on the part of the dentist, and loud noises .
I had to use all my energy tricks and wisdom to stay present and still. But really, it was too much all at once for me, and I experienced lot of emotional and physical pain for weeks afterward. I will share some of the strategies that I used to take care of myself.
I have been able to manage the experience with tapping, and, I admit, the cautious blessing of painkillers. Hmm…writing the word painkillers makes me think, “You can’t kill pain!” What an odd expression.
Given a prescription for Vicodin, I was hesitant to take it at first, because of all the stories about becoming addicted to it. But I am also very sensitive to many over-the-counter pain drugs, like ibuprofen, which are recommended for pain caused by inflammation.
I find that the ibuprofen helps with the pain, but then I feel sick for two days afterwards. Feeling better to feel worse? It is like all those ads on TV that tell you how much better you will feel after you take the medication, but you have to put up with side effects that sound as bad as the presenting condition, and often they include the possibility of death!
I did discover that with very careful use of Vicodin I had no side effects. There was one day that I took too much, and felt terrible all day and the next (but pain free!). So I thank my sensitive temperament for being a guide to dosage.
I had a similar experience with the numbing agent given by the dentist. Usually I feel ill from whatever anesthetic they use, often before the procedure is even over. When I told the endodontist whom I saw for the root canals (thankfully an extraordinarily kind and compassionate man) about my sensitivity to drugs, he suggested that I try a new anesthetic called Septocaine. It turned out to be perfect for me—no side effects during or after the procedures. Try it out next time you go to the dentist. You might have to ask for it in advance to make sure they have it.
Something else that helped before and after is the homeopathic remedy called Arnica. It supports the body in its response to trauma. I always keep a little vial with me in my bag for emergencies. I take it every couple of hours for a few times before I go to the dentist, and for a day or two after. Flower essences are also helpful for many people. Try Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, or First Aid by Findhorn Foundation Flower Essences. 8-10 drops into my water bottle, and I sip all day.
Before I go to the dentist, I practice consciously “befriending” anything that I might be coming into contact with—the medications, the instruments, the room itself. In my imagination I invite them into my body, introduce them around, so to speak, and ask that they be healing agents and allies in my experience. When I was getting teeth pulled, I held the image in my mind of tiny hands in my tooth holding hands with similar tiny hands in my jawbone. I thanked them for their support. Then I visualized these hands easily and smoothly releasing each other.
Each tooth in our mouth is connected to an energy meridian. I located the relevant information for the teeth involved in Donna Eden’s book Energy Medicine, and I worked with each of those meridians and what they represent emotionally. I also went to see my acupuncturist for help in “putting my self back in my body.”
I told a bit of my dental story in my complimentary EFT teleclass this month. The topic was “toughing it out and soldiering on.” Among the comments I received afterwards was this one (slightly edited for clarity):
Your example of the dental work was at first tedious to me ; it was like, “everybody has that, whats the big deal ?” …then I got the ah-hah moment about half way through the tapping session when my “tooth” (my emotional issue I was tapping on) was pulled by me and for me. You don’t have to be Gandhi to avoid trauma (past or present ) over dental work. Thanks Rue for being my dentist.
I wrote back: “I certainly don’t want to be anybody’s dentist! But I sure can hold that hurting ‘tooth’ with loving care. Sometimes that is all it takes. The body/mind/spirit knows how to heal itself.”
The sensitive temperament takes in the sights, sounds and sensations of any experience, good or bad, more deeply than most people do. Dental work can be exceptionally traumatic for a sensitive person. I have talked with many people who felt that a difficult dental experience was the possible trigger for their later fibromyalgia or other chronic pain.
If I hadn’t known about my sensitive temperament, I might have thought, “Oh, I am such a sissy, what is wrong with me! I shouldn’t be experiencing this. I should just be able to let it run off my back.” Or, like the man above, “What is the big fuss? Everyone goes through this! I just have to hunker down and soldier on. Even more than I usually do…”
But knowing about sensitivity has helped me to take good care of myself, verbally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. I have consistently said caring, kind things to myself about how I was experiencing this, even while it was happening. Between bouts with the drill it was really helpful to remind myself that “in this moment I am OK.” I kept my breathing deep and steady, and continually, consciously, loosened and relaxed my muscles, which were trying to pull me away from the dentist, at the same time as other muscles were trying to hold me still in the chair.
Trauma and post traumatic stress result from feeling helpless in a terribly threatening situation. The conflict in any trauma is about needing to run, get away, NOW!—while at the same time having to stay in place. Being in the dentist’s chair, or in any scary and apparently threatening experience, can create a terrible conflict, and this is what I was experiencing.
A trauma may be “small t trauma,” a series of events that happens repeatedly over time, that add up. Or it can be like my daughter’s skiing accident last week, more of a “big T trauma.” She caught an edge and slammed headfirst into a tree, denting and cracking her helmet. I spent an afternoon tapping with her, and then she saw body workers later in the week, and now she is pretty much OK, truly glad to be alive.
There are two ways to ease pain: one is the judicious use of drugs that mask the body’s pain response. I believe that the other, more important, strategy is to change the story you have about what happened to you, and what it means about you, and for you.
EFT can be very effective at helping us to change our story about suffering. When I am working with someone, I always want to hear their story. But at the same time, talking too much can be re-traumatizing for the person, even for the practitioner, if they don’t know to take care of themselves with good boundaries. We can maintain, deepen and extend our suffering by becoming very practiced at telling the story of our hurt over and over.
Once I have a sense of how the person is holding their story, I want to go directly to their body sensations, and tap for what they are feeling in their body.
There is a scientific reason for this. A scary or painful experience is registered by the body first in the muscles, especially around the gut, heart and lungs. They tighten up. This is a powerful, deep survival function. Feeling endangered sends a direct signal to the part of the brain that is on the lookout for danger, and it sets off alarms. Another part of the brain quickly picks up these signals, and urges us into immediate action—fight or flight.
But if that fight or flight action is blocked, we go into freeze, immobility. Not knowing how to “start back up again” is, according to some neurologists, the experience of trauma in our bodies. True though it may be, the story that we tell about what happened can itself scare us, each time setting off the physiology of fear inside us all over again. We become frightened of actually feeling what we are feeling, because it is so overwhelming.
Through this particular dental experience, tapping was so helpful to me. Typical of the sensitive person, I held it together while I was still at the dentist’s office, smiling and nodding as I made the next appointment, driving myself carefully home. Once I was safe at home though, I couldn’t stop crying. I shook and cried and tapped. The shaking was important for my body to feel. Shaking after a shock is the return of movement and flow, where there had been freeze before.
I tapped while I remembered the experience. I tapped while I talked to myself about what had happened. I tapped while I re-felt all the emotions of helplessness and trapped-ness and being a victim. I tapped for how my mouth felt, especially after the anesthetic wore off. I tapped and cried for most of the night.
I didn’t stop to do the EFT set up statements for the most part. I just tapped. The images and sensations and feelings and memories were right there. This is useful when what you are tapping about is so “up” that it would be a hindrance to stop and do the EFT set-up phrases. However, a person who is more used to stuffing their feelings so they won’t feel might want to go ahead and use clear set-up statements, making sure to approach their whole experience gently and respectfully.
Maybe in your experience it wasn’t safe or appropriate or possible to express what you were feeling. Maybe expressing your feelings would put you in danger in some way. When there is a freeze response in the body that can not be attended to, and it has to be swallowed or stuffed, the feelings build up so intensely, out of conscious awareness, it may feel that “if I really felt what I really feel, I might die from the intensity, or blow up and hurt someone.”
It is very important to approach these powerful feelings respectfully. The best way to do this is by starting with tiny droplets, one by one, of the actual body sensations. Don’t go to the feelings right away.
When I tapped with my daughter, I had these ideas in mind. I wanted to find out where, in her experience, was the FREEZE. If we could find that, we could slowly, gently tap into inviting a tiny movement there again. For her the FREEZE was the feeling of bracing herself as she fell, seeing that she was headed (literally), helplessly, headfirst toward the tree.
This feeling of bracing is typical of a traumatic incident. I felt it in the dentist’s chair, bracing myself against the invasion of the drill. Everything tenses up in shock and fear. Whether the trauma is an ongoing litany of “small” abuses, or a big shocking incident, if we don’t find a way to “start ourselves up” again from within, the physical sensations can become chronic.
So with my daughter, I started the tapping and talking very slowly, speaking softly, watching her closely for shifts in her experience, seeking to move her body’s awareness past the bracing and the moment of impact with the tree toward positive movement inside.
We tapped on how she came to consciousness again after she hit the tree, and cried (a good release), and took her skis off, and called her husband on her cell phone. And how she knew he was still skiing down the mountain when he didn’t answer, and how she waited, and checked out her body for injuries (no serious ones), and called him again.
And then we tapped for how she actually pulled herself together to stand and ski shakily the rest of the way down the mountain on her own (talk about toughing it out!! Probably not a good idea under the circumstances, but it worked out), finally being met by the emergency rescue team and taken care of.
The worst part for her, she said, was seeing her cracked and dented helmet, and realizing that it saved her life. She had her helmet there as we were tapping, and we spent a long time tapping for even being able to look at it, until she could do that without crying, slowly becoming able to talk about what it represented. In effect, in this session, I was using a version of the Tell the Story Technique in EFT. And—lo and behold, after she and I tapped together, my teeth felt better too!
Even becoming aware of our body sensations around a traumatic experience can be scary and upsetting. It may be really unfamiliar to become conscious of what we are actually feeling in our bodies. Most of us are unfamiliar with experiencing something as it is, without the accompanying thoughts, analysis, judgments, criticisms and self-criticisms that we habitually go to.
Borrowing from a meditation technique, I like to imagine that I am sitting on a park bench in a lovely location, with this intense sensation. In my imagination I make it be as far away from me as I need to. This makes a wonderful tapping exercise. Just tap through the points as you talk to yourself about that sensation, very slowly imagining yourself sitting closer to it, until you have the sense of just sitting there quietly with the tenseness in your muscles, the wrenching feeling in your belly, the racing of your heart, the shallowness of your breathing, the tightness of your chest. Just let it be there, without commentary, and tap. The sensation will ease.
When we tap, we are slowly and gently uncoupling that intense sensation from our images and our thoughts, allowing it to just be what it is. This sensation, without the commentary, is basically constricted energy. Inviting it to just BE what it is, in our conscious awareness, allows our minds and our spirits to restore movement and flow throughout our whole beings.
We may have been trying to protectively hold our experience away from us, so that we won’t feel it—which never works, of course—it can emerge over time in chronic pain somewhere in our bodies. Instead, now, we are learning to hold our feelings and our sensations in a larger container, an inner spaciousness.
I like the way Peter Levine puts this in his excellent new book, In an Unspoken Voice: Releasing Trauma and Restoring Goodness:
“Going into” the emotional expression is frequently a way of trying to release the tension we are feeling, while avoiding deeper feelings. It is akin to a whistling teakettle letting off steam but really making no lasting change in its capacity to hold charge (as steam). If, on the other hand, one imagines a strong rubber balloon or bladder being filled with steam, you would see the size of the bladder expanding to contain this increasing “charge.” With containment, emotion shifts into a different sensation-based “contour” with softer feelings that morph into deepening, sensate awareness of “OK-ness.”
This is the essence of emotional self regulation, self acceptance, goodness and change.
With my love and blessings to you~