Andy on....The Dentist

August 20, 2013

Andy on....The Dentist

How do you feel about the dentist?  Does the sound of the drill make you squirm? Does the thought of the poking and prodding and pulling of teeth make you clench? 

If it does, then have you ever looked at why you feel this way? Could it be that it's more to do with the 'idea' of these things, rather than the things themselves?  The other day I went to see my dentist for a filling and decided to look at this a bit more closely...

I don't know about you, but I never liked going to the dentist as a kid - and no sugar-free lollipop and sticker was ever going to change that.  It felt brutal somehow, although of course that might have reflected the approach of just this one dentist - although I seriously doubt it.  At the age of 6 he suggested to my mum that I take some valium to make the trips to his surgery a little easier. Valium?  At the age of 6?  I would have been asleep for a week!

The thing is though, these memories and associations can have a really strong impact on current events if we're not fully aware of them.  We tend to project the unpleasant memory from the past onto what's happening right now.  As a result, we bring about the same feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, sadness or whatever other emotion it might be.

For me, going to the dentist always brought about a feeling of fear and anxiety, mostly around the idea of having to experience pain.  It has hurt in the past and therefore I assumed it would hurt the next time.  I never realised as a child that the assumption and the associated tension was actually contributing to the discomfort quite so much.

When I went in to the surgery recently it was to have a filling.  These days a visit to the dentist serves as a great opportunity to practice mindfulness and I was determined to watch the process a little more closely, to see at what point the procedure was actually painful.  OK, so the needle going in wasn't pleasant, but then it wasn't exactly painful either.  It it was, then it lasted no longer than a second or two.  So the discomfort was clearly more to do with the idea of a large metal syringe being aimed at my face.

Next the dentist had to dig out the existing filling.  Sure, there was a lot of tugging and pulling, but at no point could I actually describe it as painful - it was just unpleasant.  So as a child it was undoubtedly the anticipation of pain or a slip of the hand that fed the anxiety.  'Ah, but what about the drill?' I hear you say.  Although it has to go down as one of the most unpleasant noises out there, even that was not actually 'painful', but instead brought about an 'idea' of pain.  I lay there and waited for it to hurt, but that feeling never came.

I wonder how many other things like this in life we carry with us, painful events, difficult situations, all colouring our experience of everyday life in the present moment.  I wonder how different life might feel if we were able to meet each new experience as something new, something fresh and something as yet undiscovered, waiting to see how it actually feels and unfolds, rather than meeting it with all the usual assumptions, expectations and associations from the past.


Keep reading the Headspace Blog for more articles from Headspace Founder Andy Puddicombe.

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