Trigger Warning: This post content gently alludes to emotional trauma, assault, and physical violence. We acknowledge that this content may be difficult and encourage you to care for your emotional safety and well-being.
What is Emotional Trauma?
Emotional trauma results from events or experiences that lead one to feel profoundly unsafe. The source of this trauma can manifest following one isolated incident or repeated/chronic experiences (ex., abuse, bullying, discrimination, or humiliation). While an emotionally traumatic experience may also encompass an element of physical harm, emotional trauma can be sustained without any physical harm.1
How to Recognize Emotional Trauma
Emotional trauma is characterized by a persistent sensation of being unsafe and may result in feelings such as fear and/or anxiety.1 One may also have physical responses to trauma such as insomnia, disassociation, and health issues.
If not addressed supportively at the time, traumatic memories may be stored in our psyche and body.2 This may result in trauma imprinting or repressed memories, which may then present at a future date in triggering contexts.3
How Does Emotional Trauma Relate to Dentistry?
Whether previous emotionally traumatic experiences are implicitly linked to dental care or not, the circumstances of a dental appointment can be triggering for many people. Here are some examples of the reasons why dentistry can be a catalyst for an emotional response:
- Sensitivity of Mouths
On a biological level, the human mouth is a susceptible area of the body. “In fact, it’s estimated that up to 46% of the sensory nerves responsible for motor control and feeling run through the face.”4 The teeth are host to a complex system of sensory receptors.5,6 Each tooth is also related to an acupuncture meridian, which connects to various organs, tissues, and glands throughout the body.8 The facial lips contain over a million separate nerve endings, causing them to be one of the most sensitive parts of the human body (100 times more sensitive than a fingertip).7 Lastly, the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) encompasses hormone receptors, which heavily inform our autonomic nervous system (involuntary bodily actions).9Thus, it is apparent that the oral environment is an inherently sensitive area of the body on a physical level.
Furthermore, it is believed that our mouths also relate to our emotional and energetic wellbeing. As a prominent physical feature on our faces, the mouth often holds a symbolic value in one’s self-esteem. It also serves as our means of verbally expressing ourselves & communicating with others, an experience that can incorporate a wide breadth of emotion.10 In the Chakra methodology, the mouth is categorized within the throat or Vishuddha chakra, indicating its relationship to the emotional expression of truth, purpose, creativity, and individuality.11
Due to the human mouth’s sensitive physical and emotional nature, it is logical that this part of our body may be more susceptible to trauma.
- Patient Vulnerability
For the patient, the experience of receiving dental care inherently demands a high level of vulnerability. Oftentimes, the patient is in a reclined position, being asked to expose a very sensitive area of their body (the mouth), and entrusting an acquaintance (the dentist) to perform treatment while the patient is either conscious or sedated.12 The implied level of trust in this professional relationship is immense and can create a context of discomfort for many people. This discomfort can instigate an emotional trigger.
- Previous Traumatic Experiences with Dentistry
Unfortunately, it is possible that one may have had a traumatic experience related to previous dentistry. Thus, the event of returning to a dentist for further oral care may trigger a negative emotional response. Research shows that 77% of adults plan to visit the dentist within a year, but only 37% of them do so. Of those who do not proceed with an appointment, 22% cite that “fear of the dentist” is the primary reason.13
- Dental Shame
Based on a survey conducted by the American Dental Association, 35% of Americans are embarrassed about their oral health, and 33% avoid smiling because of their oral condition.13 This emotional relationship to oral wellness is often linked to feelings of shame and can prevent someone from seeking care for fear of being judged. This then creates a predicament (i.e., “snowball effect”) in which the patient delays care, the disease worsens, the patient becomes even more ashamed, and thus ultimately, even less likely to seek care. When circumstances such as this develop, going to the dentist becomes an emotionally traumatic undertaking.
Photo credit: Swiss Dental Solutions
How Does Dynamic Dental Solutions Create a Trauma-Informed Environment?
As part of our thoughtful approach to dentistry, our practice aims to take a genuinely holistic approach by caring for the patient’s physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. To create an experience that not only avoids harm but also facilitates true healing, we incorporate the following aspects of our care:
- Consent – Beginning with the very first phone call, our team and doctors are trained to ask for the patient’s consent at every step of the process. We want every patient to feel that they are in total control of their body and decision-making.
- Calming Experience – Our office was uniquely designed to cultivate a comfortable, nurturing, and safe atmosphere. We utilize soft lighting, non-intrusive music, heated & massage chairs, and pastel décor. In addition, we help orient new patients to our facility and ensure that each individual gets ample, uninterrupted time with the doctor.
- Cultivating Trust – In order for patients to feel at ease receiving care, it is critical for our doctors to first develop a level of trust. Each new patient at our office begins with an hour-long conversation with the doctor. This affords both individuals a time to become better acquainted and comfortable. From there, the doctors aim to instill increasing levels of trust by demonstrating their clinical expertise.
- Empowering – Our practice aims to empower each individual to make proactive and informed decisions about their health. In addition, it is our goal to offer supportive and approachable options for implementing steps towards oral vitality.
- Gentle Care – The doctors at Dynamic Dental Solutions focus on minimally invasive dentistry and are specially trained to perform procedures with gentle movements.
- Well Informed – Dr. Sharon Dickerson completed her bachelor’s degree in both psychology & biology and has continued to invest in further education related to behavioral wellbeing over the course of her career. It is her personal hope to ensure that any individual in her care feels emotionally and physically safe & understood at all times.
- Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2015.
- Loewenstein WR, Rathkamp R. A study on the pressoreceptive sensibility of the tooth. J Dent Res. 1955;34(2):287-294