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Could you ever love a root canal?

In this week's health and wellness column, Cheryl Gordon tackles a very sensitive topic
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Perhaps “loving” is an exaggeration. Getting a root canal has to be anyone’s definition of a terrible way to spend the afternoon. I have a long and embarrassing history of being terrified, even at dental cleanings, so yesterday afternoon was not one I was looking forward to. But I discovered a secret that made the two hours in the chair, and subsequent thaw of the freezing, quite bearable.  

The secret is understanding a bit more about how our brain accepts, or rejects, sensory experiences.  

We have three basic types of awareness.

 1.    exteroceptive – this is how we are looking at the world outside our bodies 
 2.    proprioceptive – this is how we perceive where are bodies are in relationship to the outside world
 3.    interoceptive – this is how we sense our internal landscape such as heartbeat, hunger, emotion, etc.

During our active day, the brain tends to engage more in the first or second type of awareness. Interoceptive awareness is less likely to command attention unless the internal sensations are quite strong. All three types of awareness feed sensation to the brain. How these sensations are perceived, appraised and responded to equals mental health.

Contemplative practices such as Mindfulness, meditation, yoga and prayer develop interoceptive awareness. These regularly scheduled activities expand the range of sensations that the brain acknowledges which results in neuroplasticity. As we dive into what is happening for us in the present moment, into that rich and uncertain range of physical, mental or spiritual sensation, we build a body of experience that literally remaps our brains to be more resilient.

So back to the root canal. Yuck! Here is where my regular yoga and meditation practice helps, however. I was able to refocus from exteroceptive awareness (the dental drill, etc.) to interoceptive at my will. With an attitude of openness and curiosity, I tried to stay tuned to all the internal sensations. In this way, my brain bypassed the normal “panicked” mapping that I usually have at the dentist. My brain has practised receiving and appraising and responding to unexpected sensations during yoga poses, for example, so my brain had some confidence that it could navigate these new sensations in that same way.

There might be other situations in your life that scare the “bejesus” out of you. This is a method to “stretch” your brain to handle these challenges with less fear. This short video will demonstrate a simple restorative yoga pose that might help (see video here). I recommend daily practice for five to 20 minutes. Play relaxing music or listen to a guided meditation that you like if that helps you to stay focused. The most important thing is to keep returning to that attitude of openness and curiosity. Allow sensations. Don’t push them away or pretend they don’t exist. Good luck and let me know how things turn out.