Until a couple of years ago, I literally couldn't go to the dentist without having a full-on meltdown.
I'm talking days of intense dread before even a simple cleaning appointment. I'm talking a panic attack the moment I stepped into the building.
I attribute the problem to generalized anxiety disorder, which, in part, presents itself as a fierce fear of doctors.
Soon after my appointment, I came across a meditation that uses the metaphor to describe how we let our minds ruin our focus and follow whatever insane, irrational, worrisome thought that arises.
It's from my favorite meditation app. Click here for more.
But with the help of my mindfulness practice, my recent appointment was the easiest yet.
It was the first time I attempted to use mindfulness to get through an appointment.
And it wasn't something I thought about in advance. It would have been prudent to have planned, but my predentist mindset wasn't having it.
But to my pleasant surprise, it came to me naturally when the anxiety hit upon entering the office and getting a whiff of that sterile dentist office aroma.
I'm hopeful that the fact that I had the immediate urge to use my mindfulness tools is a sign that I've made meaningful progress in my practice. And the fact that it worked is beyond exciting.
(Once, I had a panic attack on a plane, despite the fact that flying generally doesn't scare me. I was already hyperventilating when I tried to meditate, and I don't know what I was expecting, but I couldn't quell that anxiety. Journalist and author of 10% Happier Dan Harris wrote that he was naive to have assumed that meditation would make staying in solitary confinement for a news article a cinch. So, as I've written before, meditation isn't a miracle drug.)
To get through the appointment, I consistently focused on the very moment I was in. I focused on my breath and my body, and my wonderful dental hygienist helped me by reminding me to breathe.
Instead of fighting my reality, I embraced it.
Eckhart Tolle articulates well why this is important:
"Always say yes to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say yes to life—and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you."
I can attest that this strategy works, even at the dentist, which for me is a serious test.
Whereas before I would have let my thoughts and fears take over my mind, making the experience even worse, I simply sat there in acceptance.
About halfway through the cleaning, it dawned on me that it wasn't as bad as I always feared because I wasn't giving in to my mind's desire to wonder how much longer or go down a rabbit holes of what ifs: "What if they find a cavity? What if I have gum disease? What if my dentist thinks my teeth are the dirtiest he has ever seen?"
The key is the recognition that our thoughts about life are often what make it scary or upsetting. My thoughts about the dentist are always much worse than the actual experience, but my anxiety makes that difficult to realize.
By focusing on only the moment I'm in, I make the experience more digestible.
In each moment, I checked in with my body and realized I was OK. I focused on breathing—how it felt, how it sounded. I focused on the light glimmering in from the window and the greenery I could glimpse from the chair.
I even concentrated on the scratching of the tools against my teeth, which doesn't sound pleasant, but I was fine. And instead of focusing on fear, I tried to think openly about what I was experiencing. The scratching wasn't like getting an amazing massage, but it wasn't painful. It wasn't intrinsically panic-inducing.
All this grounded me in reality and allowed me to avoid getting carried away with wasteful worry about irrational ideas.
I admit that—despite my faith in the practice—I'm somewhat surprised that it helped me through the dreaded dentist. And I feel a bit frustrated that I'm unable to consistently call to action the same effect during any seemingly unbearable event.
But I'm reminding myself to look back to the times when I've literally hyperventilated and cried both at the thought of the dentist and during the appointment (not my proudest moments).
And I have to be pleased with how far I've come.
Mindfulness, in part, is a way to help me become my best self. And my best self is someone who doesn't get hysterical about the dentist.
Onward to our best selves.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.