Mindfulness to Reduce Dental Anxiety

Can Mindfulness Practices be used at the Dentist’s Office?

I recently sat down with Dr. Azadeh Aalai, a social psychologist and contributor to Psychology Today. Dr.Aalai has written extensively about the benefits that come from mindfulness practices, including a recent post on Psychology Today about its application for quitting smoking (see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-first-impression/201509/applying-mindfulness-techniques-quit-smoking).

Additionally, she regularly facilitates mindfulness training for faculty and incorporate environments. This got me thinking, given how anxious patients can be when they come to the dentist, could mindfulness practices be integrated into their dental care?

Below are excerpts from our lively discussion regarding the application of mindfulness practices to the dentist’s chair:

Q (Dr. Alex): Can you explain for those readers who are not familiar with the term what exactly is meant by mindfulness practices?

A (Dr. Aalai): Mindfulness is raising awareness of the present moment. The notion of practicing mindfulness can take many forms, like meditation, for instance. But the critical component of mindfulness is to be aware of what is happening in the mind and body right now.

Q (Dr. Alex): This sounds pretty basic, why do we need a practice to help us stay in the present moment?

A (Dr. Aalai): Well, it does sound basic, which is exactly the point.

Our culture has become so fast paced and complex that most of us are under pressure to complete ten tasks at the same time. We are either ruminating on something from our past or anticipating some stressor in the future, all of which takes us away from the present moment. So the idea of mindfulness is to stay in the here and now, to focus on what is happening in the moment and become attentive to the present.

Mindfulness can awaken you to what is happening right now, which can be empowering.

Q (Dr. Alex): Empowering, I like that! So what other benefits come from mindfulness?

A (Dr. Aalai): Well, as you mentioned, there is great research right now coming out of Yale University that implementing these practices can more effectively help cigarette smokers quit. More generally, engaging in mindfulness practices—which can be as simple as deep breathing practices—has been found to be an effective stress management technique.

Q (Dr. Alex): So I have heard of training practices across the country where dental students are learning mindfulness to be applied to dentistry. For instance, the Medical Center at the University of Rochester is applying mindfulness practices to how their health professionals are being trained, including within dentistry. How does this work?

A (Dr. Aalai): There is a widening recognition among health care practitioners that including mindfulness training in their own trainings and transmitting it to their patients can help alleviate stress associated with medical care and also help facilitate a deeper connection between patients and their health care providers.

Given how much anxiety patients getting dental care can have, this has a great potential to enrich their experience in the dental chair.

Q (Dr. Alex): A lot of the anxiety dental patients have is actually in anticipating an appointment, so that they get anxious just thinking about coming into the office. This may actually lead to patients canceling an appointment or avoiding going for their regular check-ups. Can mindfulness help with that?

A (Dr. Aalai): Absolutely. The whole point of mindfulness is to stay in the present moment. So if a patient is anticipating pain or dreading an appointment they have for a root canal, let’s say next week, by practicing mindfulness and redirecting their attention to what is happening right now, they can stay grounded in the present moment and avoid that anxiety. In other words, when practicing mindfulness, ask yourself, “Is there anything for me to be anxious about right now?”

Usually the answer is no, because most of our anxiety stems from either past events or things we anticipate in the future. The hardest part for a patient who has anxiety about the dental appointment is just getting them into the office, because actually the anxiety builds and builds before the appointment.

Q (Dr. Alex): Right, so if they just can manage their anxiety leading up to the appointment, making it into the office is half of the battle!

A (Dr. Aalai): Yes, exactly! Like what many yoga instructors will tell you at the start of a practice is justmaking it to your yoga class is half the battle! Of course, once the patient comes to the office, they can practice deep breathing and other mindfulness techniques to manage their stress during the dental procedure itself. It helps to have a compassionate dentist, which can be enhanced if the dentist, too, is trained in mindfulness.

Q (Dr. Alex): In a lot of ways, it sounds like these practices promote humanistic values that all health providers should aspire to promote when they give care to their patients, such as listening to what they need and being empathic.

A (Dr. Aalai): Yes, all of these processes feed off of one another and can work towards the greater ambition of creating a warm and inviting atmosphere to treat patients and in particular help them with pain management.

To learn more about Dr. Aalai’s work and to visit her articles on Psychology Today, go to:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/azadeh-aalai-phd

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