I’ve always been apprehensive about going to the dentist. When I was in my early twenties I was diagnosed with TMJ and my dentist put me on steroids and a muscle relaxant. That was their treatment plan. My mom encouraged me to ‘take my medicine,’ but I didn’t feel right. After 6 months on it, one my college professors pulled me aside to mirror back to me what she was seeing - I was a zombie. I agreed! That was my first spark of interest in natural based medicine - masking the pain wasn't a solution. But that story, along with ways to address TMJ, will be for another time. This story is about going for regular dental check ups and managing the anxiety that kicks in every single time.
Ten years ago I had a traumatic experience while getting my teeth cleaned at a new-to-me dental office. The hygienist was super aggressive and as my physical discomfort increased, so did my emotional discomfort. I asked her to stop being so aggressive, to which she replied ‘your hygienist isn’t doing you any favors by going easy on you - you really should take a sedative so I can do my work.’
To which I replied, ‘No, thank you.' We had a back and forth struggle that last another 15 minutes or so, where she kept pushing, and kept pushing back. I wasn't going to allow myself to be sedated in this person's care so they could torture me with a teeth cleaning. They were extremely frustrated with me, I left in a fair amount of distress after communicating with the dentist why I would not be returning to their office.
It was nearly two years before I went back to my previous dental office. I kept making excuses, forgetting about it, 'I was too busy' I told myself. I actually was quite busy, but at the root of my experience I was terrified and completely disassociated from that terror.
When I finally made the appointment for a dental check up I acknowledged and shared my strong feelings of aversion. They booked me with a wonderful hygienist who usually worked with kids. Cici was great with me! We together to manage whatever arose in my experience and with her support I learned to apply my meditation skills and tendency to disassociate for my benefit. She let me be in control of what was needed for her to work, as much as possible. I could decide to refuse a treatment, or not, and it was clear she was invested in helping me understand all the factors in each decision along the way. Even after moving more than an hour away, I maintained my connection with her, getting regular cleanings every 4-6 months.
So why am I telling this story, what does it have to do with acupuncture?
That’s where the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system come in. As someone who has a history of trauma, being told that I needed to be sedated in order to be cared for by someone I just met was absolutely off the rails, out of the question, not going to happen. When I met Cici, she helped me gain control of my apprehensive feelings by acknowledging them and encouraging being present and making choices about how to move forward together to achieve the goal of care needed.
Last month, while attending a Trauma Healing training, I learned about the intention behind the NADA protocol, developed to help in recovery from addiction and later discovered to help in alleviating post trauma stress symptoms for veterans. Learning about the integration of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems supported by trauma response acupuncture helped me deepen my understanding of my own process. Being knocked out or deeply relaxed to the point of not caring what was happening to oneself isn't helpful when dealing with difficult emotions. The idea is to be able to relax just enough to calmly be able to accept whatever conditions are present and be alert to the choices that are within my power to make to help integrate the traumatic experience. This is what community trauma acupuncture addresses.
Learning and being supported to slow down my thoughts to better feel the concern, the upset, the fear, and recognizing that we will move through this is at the heart of the matter. Acupuncture can support this process.
Learn more about acupuncture in the treatment of dental anxiety.
Contact me for a free consultation if you think this approach will help you through your next dental visit.
Cici retired last spring, I kept asking for 6 months notice, which she gave it to me. I’ve since found another provider closer to home who is excellent. And I had to undergo some serious dental surgery this year which was able to work through just fine with my deepened understanding of the emotional process, how I could work with it, and getting regular acupuncture to support me along the way.