Anxiety has been on my mind this week due to an incredibly stressful experience I had at the dentist. I have had anxiety about going to the dentist ever since I can remember. I think my first experience that I can really remember is being little, maybe 7, and getting a cavity filled and not being completely numb (but being too afraid to say anything because I've never really been one to rock the boat). So I was having this awful pain, and the sound of the drill was so awful, and the smell of my tooth being drilled was so awful, and I just remember looking up at the ceiling tiles and feeling like everything was just spinning wildly around- and it was so awful. Did I mention it was awful? SO awful. As I'm writing this all I can think is, do they even fill cavities when you're that little? I mean probably if it's not a baby tooth right? Whatever, don't judge me, I've been told I have "bad teeth" due to genetics so it's not my fault! I mean I could probably brush more but, yah know. We're all just here doing our best.
Anyway, back to point. So I believe, because of this horrifying experience, everything about the dentist has always just freaked me out. Which has led me to avoid the dentist for chunks of large amounts of time at once. Which I know, I know, is just making it all the worse. Anywaysss, all of this to say I get anxious when I even think about going to the dentist. I get even more anxious when I walk into the office, and more anxious as they call me back and even more anxious when they tilt the chair back and snap on those awful latex gloves, to the point where my whole body is tense and I'm sweating from everywhere and practically clenching my jaw completely shut by the time they even pick up of the little mirror tool to take a look at what awful thing is going on inside my mouth this time.
So last week, I'm in the chair, sweating profusely, but trying to be cooperative as they prepare to numb my entire mouth for a "deep cleaning". I'm using quotes because I feel like that's really a misleading term- judging by the amount of bleeding that was occurring I'm not sure how much cleaning could have even gotten done. Anyway, they're using that little gel stuff to help numb the areas that there going to stab with that ungodly sized needle and I feel the panic start to set in. But I'm like "dude, you're a therapist you've got this, just take some deep breaths, distract yourself with some nice thoughts, repeat a nice little mantra to yourself, you're going to be fine". So I'm doing it, using my little tricks, and all of a sudden something feels SO AWFUL in my mouth. SO much was happening so fast and there was so much pain and all of a sudden I was not feeling so in control, and then my whole body tensed into a rock, tears started streaming down my cheeks, I felt like I couldn't breathe and I was trying so hard to keep my composure, but I was totally freaking out. They sat me up and gave me a break and my hands were shaking uncontrollably. No matter what I was doing or thinking to myself nothing was working, I was clearly having an extreme physical response, something I've never experienced to that degree before- what I believe was a panic attack.
When I got home I did some research on this experience and it turns out most dentists use some type of numbing agent with epinephrine aka adrenaline in it to help the local anesthetic stay local and keep you numb longer. Which sounds super great, unless they're shooting your whole, already very anxious, mouth up with this adrenaline laced stuff and accidentally tap into one of your veins. I have no idea if that's really what happened, but based on the feeling (and some amateur googling) that's what I'm going with. ANYWAY. Afterward I was SO upset because I was like why didn't anyone tell me that the reaction I was having was something that can, and probably has happened, to lots of people?! I kept apologizing profusely to the dentist and his assistant and they were nice about it, but kind of made it seems like I just got super overwhelmed all on my own which made me feel so stupid!
Anxiety can be defined as the body's reaction to stressful, dangerous, or uncertain situations. Although we often hear about anxiety being a negative, something we don't want to experience, anxiety can often be a completely normal and healthy response to whatever we have going on in our lives. Small amounts of stress or anxiety can help us prepare for situations like job interviews or tests, or help us stay awake and alert when we need to be (i.e. walking down a dark alley at night). While it can be an uncomfortable experience to have, we can often be better off for having the experience.
Sometimes, however, anxiety is more unhelpful than not- like when anxiety helped me prepare well for presentations while I was in school, but also caused me to have a trembling voice during the actual presentations, which made it sound like I was crying, which made me turn red and get hot, which made me worry about what people were thinking of me, which just made me want to actually cry, which just increased the trembling- thus causing the anxiety to actually make everything much, much worse at that point.
Anxiety is also one of those experiences that is super draining on the body. Thanks to adrenaline rushes, muscle tension, and mental taxation, among other things, anxiety can be an incredibly physical experience, often causing us to "crash" afterward. Anxiety can be extremely frustrating and sometimes even debilitating. While about 20% of Americans will be diagnosed with anxiety in their lifetime, we are all likely to at least experience anxiety at some point in our lives. That's a lot of stressed out and anxious people walking around! So what is a guy a gal to do?!
Some Tips for Dealing with Anxiety:
Take a Deep Breathe
Yes, really. I know it seems like it couldn't possibly help- it's too simple! But deep breaths actually help pull the body out of the "fight or flight" mode and help remind our body and our brain that we are not in mortal danger, no matter how bad the current situation may seem. Deep breaths help fully oxygenate our blood, slow our heart rate and decrease our blood pressure- all good things. Try putting your hand on your belly, taking a deep breath in so you feel your belly expand and breathe fully out and feel your belly fall. Moving from breathing with your chest to your belly helps calm your nervous system, so give it a try!
Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol
Womp. Womp. Although there can be nothing sweeter than a cup of coffee in the morning and nothing more refreshing than a cold brew on a warm summer evening, if you're battling with anxiety you're going to want to refrain from these guys. Although caffeine may feel like it can energize us to get through an anxious slump and alcohol can feel like it calms us down, alcohol and caffeine actually make the likelihood of a panic attack more likely and can increase anxiety. Try come camomile or other herbal tea instead!
Pump Some Iron
Or take a walk, or go for a jog! Getting a sweat session in, even for just 5 minutes, can help produce anti-anxiety effects. For some people a daily 20 or 30 minute exercise routine can complete replace the need for medication, increase their ability to fall and stay asleep, help quell depressive symptoms and boost mood! Having an exercise routine you can enjoy makes it more likely you'll stick to it so try multiple things! You might consider Zumba, kickboxing, yoga, or martial arts!
Take One Thing at a Time
Whether it is worrying about a relationship, what you're going to cook for dinner with only left over chick and jelly in the fridge, how you're going to pay the bills or what to wear to that important event next month, thing thing about worry is that it usually has us living in the future rather than the present. I don't have to have dinner figured out at 9:00am, I don't need to know my outfit for that even next month if I am in this month and if the bill isn't due till the 31st, I don't need to worry about it on the 3rd. Yes, we should look forward every so often so we can be prepared, and yes, a little bit of worry might make sure we don't miss that bill due date, but when it gets to the point of anxiety, where the feelings of unease are getting in the way, the worrying is no longer helpful. In these times it can be good to prioritize our needs and just worry about the first thing first. No need to fret about what house you will buy when you haven't even gotten approved for a mortgage yet!
Play Out the Worst Case Scenario
Lots of time our anxieties are not very realistic. Other times, our anxieties make a lot of sense. A good question to start out with is "how likely is xyz to happen"? There's a big difference between fearing a huge python coming through your front door (snakes are a very real fear of mine) versus not being able to pay your monthly utility bill on time. The next good question is what would be the absolute worst outcome if that happened? If a python comes through my door I can probably run out the back door and escape, if my utility bill is going to be late I can probably call and arrange a payment plan of some type, etc. etc. A lot of times the worst outcome of our anxieties are something we could totally cope with and sometimes it can be reassuring to remember that even if we do have to have a chicken and jelly sandwich for dinner, we're not going to die :)
Find a Distraction
Sometimes something is going to happen and we just have to deal with it. I know when I have a dentist appointment coming up that I'm going to go and they're probably going to have to do something uncomfortable and the worst case scenario of a panic attack could potentially happen. For this reason I schedule my appointments in the mornings so I just get up and go and don't have to sit and stew about it all day. This also might mean I watch a funny movie to tv marathon the night before so I don't sit and think about what doom awaits me tomorrow at the dental office and I also might reward myself with a Jamba Juice afterward! Finding things to distract from the worrisome can be helpful when we just need to grit our teeth and get through it.
Get a Mantra
For me it's "it's ok, I'm ok." In times of anxiety or stress I repeat these words to myself, take a deep breath and enjoy the rhythm of the words, either outlaid of in my head. Having something to focus on that is also a positive message can be very calming to the body and mind. Try out a few different phrases to see if there might be something that resonates with you!
Make Sure You've Been Watered and Fed
Just like it is important to watch what we're drinking it can also be equally important to watch what we're eating and how much water we are consuming. Blood sugar and dehydration can play a big part in our mental and physical health and it is important that we maintain one of the sake of the other. Making sure you are eating your recommended calories per day and getting in all your food groups can be important for staying full and fueled throughout your day. Eating lots or very carb heavy foods can sometimes put our body on a blood sugar roller coaster which causes us to feel rushes or drops in energy. Consulting your physician or a dietician might be a good idea if you notice food is playing a role in your mood.
Involve Your Senses
Whether it is your yummy dinner cooking in the oven, a lavender bubble bath, wrapping ourselves in a heavy blanket, watching a calming waterfall or fireplace. listening to some calming tunes or eating a comfort food our sense can provide a temporary escape from our worries and stress. The more you can focus on what is going on around you - the sights, smells, sounds, touches and tastes, the more you are living in the hear and now and the less you are living in your worries. Try out some new recipes or take a hike and notice, REALLY notice all the sensory input around you.
Talk to a Friend or Professional
Talking through a situation helps your brain process things in a different way than just thinking about it inside your own mind. Talking with someone else can also help generate new ideas or solutions for your problems, or may help you just air out some of your pent up feelings and energy. A professional may also be able to recommend other tips or strategies for working through your anxiety that are more specific to your specific circumstances. If you aren't comfortable talking about what is going on for you it might be helpful to at least do a little journaling around your feelings. Writing things out helps get the words on to paper which might make you look at the situation or your feelings in a different or more helpful light.