My Root Canal Survival Trick: Meditation

Image copyright @ Nancy Alder

Earlier this fall I had to have a root canal. One of my molars had developed an infection, and despite not having any pain my dentist scheduled me for an immediate root canal. Friends and family gasped and collectively shivered at the idea of this periodontal appointment.

The day of my first appointment the anxiety began to build as I remembered what my friends had said about their experiences with root canals. “Worst thing ever.” “So painful.” “The drilling was horrible.” The beginning stages of anxiety started to show themselves: sweaty palms, racing heart, waves of heat. The primal fight or flight tendencies so inherent in my human animal seemingly could not be stopped.

My periodontist brought me into the room and sat down with a pencil and a pad of paper and told me exactly what was going to happen. His calm voice and clear specifics initiated a movement in my physiology towards ease. So I took my spot in the dental chair and began to focus on my breath. I inhaled deeply. I exhaled even deeper. I kept this pattern up and closed my eyes so I not see the drill or what he was doing.

Then the sounds started.

Whirring drill, grinding instruments and everything that suggested that mouth and nerve sensitivity was imminent despite excessive novocaine administration a few minutes earlier. At that moment I made a choice to dive deeper into the calm of contemplative thought rather than spin in nervousness faster than the drill itself. I remembered the meditation technique of labelling. I utilized the practice I felt so helpful on a less exciting day. I remembered to meditate.

Keeping my eyes closed I turned my awareness very closely to my breath. I noticed the texture, temperature and balance of my breath. I watched from the inside how my body moved as I breathed. I felt my back lifting off the dental chair on inhale and returning to it on an exhale. I took mental notes as I breathed. I was actively being a participant in my breath rather than in the procedure happening in my mouth.

Next I began the labeling practice I learned from teachers. Every time I heard the drill whine I told myself “hearing.” When I felt pressure or sensation on my tooth I said “feeling.” As fear arose I said “feeling.” The smell of the chemicals and the room were instantly tucked away to a space called “smelling.” For the next 30 minutes I labeled everything that came up as a way to let it go. I developed a rhythm that combined my breathing with a label and felt my discomfort and tension dissipate so significantly I jumped when the periodontist said, “We’re done.” I had meditated away all the stress and had tuned into my mind for the entire procedure.

The practice of labeling work wonders if your mind is struggling to be quiet. In times of stress, distractions or merely if you cannot focus during meditation, try naming what is happening. Listing these sensations or moments can effectively shut them down, or quiet them. Think of labeling like the experience of seeing shapes in a cloud. When you look in the sky at clouds you might see a recognizable shape, say a bunny. The instant you label it as a bunny the winds shift and the cloud dissipates. The bunny no longer can be seen. Labeling our sensations/experiences works in a similar fashion to this cloud practice. Upon giving our sensations/experiences a label, we acknowledge them and allow them to go out of our realm of concentration. For example, if we feel an itch on our left check, we say to ourselves “feeling” and it alleviates the need to scratch it because the intensity of the itch also reduces. Rather than clinging to the questions that surround this itch (It itches, should I scratch it? If I move to scratch does this mean I am not meditating?) which can spin our mind away from ease.

The practice of labeling softened my experience of a root canal so significantly that during the second procedure I became relaxed enough to almost fall asleep. It gave me a scaffolding to acknowledge my fears, experiences without requiring me to cling on to or battle them.It is the meditation tool I use most frequently when times are challenging, and when I need to quiet the chatter in my mind. And, it apparently works really well during dental work.