Research shows that persons who have survived repeated trauma in their lives will have difficulty with dental procedures.
Trauma and the dentist tend not to get along very well. First off, attempting to be vulnerable is never easy for a survivor of trauma, but what about being exposed in a dentist’s chair? Being vulnerable with hygienists, the dentist, the admin staff, (as lovely as they may be) is disconcerting and remarkably uncomfortable for a survivor’s nervous system.
Remember, when I spoke about the Vagus running from our brain stem down into the nervous system? Well, if you’re a survivor of repeated traumatic events, then very likely the dorsal Vagus is going to start acting up. What does this look like? It seems like dissociating (numbed out and embarrassingly not present) or even more embarrassing, your amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for scanning the environment for threat) is going to activate. What does this look like? Hyper-alert, tense, irritable, even angry that strange people are sticking their rubber glove fingers and cold instruments in your mouth!
Then there are automatic thoughts, the things that we tell ourselves while our nervous system is entirely naturally responding the way it was designed to protect you from the threat. You may find yourself saying things like, “I am such an idiot, why can’t I just relax?!” or “I feel so embarrassed that I am this nervous. They must think I’m a real case, or think I’m crazy; always gagging, or feeling sick to my stomach”.
If you are fortunate, you will have a warm, compassionate dentist who is trauma-informed and helps you regulate your nervous system before any work can be done.
This was my very fortunate experience. After avoiding as much as I could, I finally found a dentist who helped me regulate enough. Not only do I go every three months, (yes you read right, Every. Three. Months.), but now I am getting the work done that I used to only dream of.
This dentist introduced me to EFT which she uses on me before she does any work. She also helps me regulate, diaphragmatic breathing to regulate my nervous system. I have had mini-miracles throughout the journey like finally getting X-rays completed without gagging!
Today my dentist stated, “It’s been a remarkable journey for you and for us to watch your progress”. Trying to hold back tears, I said, “I could not have done it without you!”
Regular exposure (repeatedly returning to the dentist’s office no matter how much I didn’t want to make the appointments) combined with regulatory exercises to calm the nervous system is what did the trick.
The bottom line is we must practice, practice, practice! If we don’t, we will not reap the benefits. Don’t wait until you feel like it, or you will never do it. Continue to practice exercises that calm your nervous system and you should be able to conquer just about any fear.