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A Reactive Dental Patient

Rehabilitating a reactive dental patient

I have always hated going to the dentist. I can handle the pain, but I don't like it. Even when you're numbed up, you can still feel the pressure, and a numb mouth is not a pleasant sensation. Holding your mouth open for an hour while a stranger makes horrible scraping sounds inside your mouth sucks. Anyone who says it does not suck is lying.

Temporary solution

I found a solution to the problem of uncomfortable dentistry: Just don't go. This did solve the problem for many years, about six in fact. I remember every dental cleaning I ever recieved included admonitions about my failure to brush properly, and how that was making the entire experience worse. This is true, but knowing that I would be admonished when I go to the dentist makes me a lot less enthusiastic about going, so NOT going became a very easy decision to make. I loved not going to the dentist, until my teeth started to hurt. Many great ideas have tragic flaws, toothaches were the tragic flaw in this plan.

Dealing with the problem.

Long before I started experiencing tooth aches, I noticed I was getting headaches every morning. I think the culprit was actually sore gums, because the pain would often originate in my back teeth. So I started taking better care of my teeth, brushing multiple times per day and flossing every day, somedays twice, and rinsing with mouthwash. The headaches did go away, and my mouth felt cleaner. I was rewarded for my flossing and it became a habit. I was eagerly looking forward to another reward, which was part of my motivation for flossing regularly: I wanted to get a compliment instead of a reprimand at the Dentist's office. I was always told by professionals that cleaned my teeth in years past that the cleaning process would be faster and easier if I flossed regularly, so I was looking forward to my next visit going really well. Unfortunately, no amount of brushing and flossing is going to make up for waiting 6 years for a professional cleaning. It was a little on the grueling side. Far from unbearable, in fact it was less awful than I remembered, maybe dental tools and techniques have improved? But it was still no fun at all, and I was reprimanded for waiting 6 years to get a cleaning and a checkup. The technician was very, very nice, she was pleasant, not lecturing at all, but I was still disappointed. I thought I was doing well, and I still had the exact same experience I remembered; long, uncomfortable, and ending with a reprimand.


I had to schedule several follow ups to replace some VERY old fillings that were dying of old age, but I wasn't looking forward to them anymore. AT ALL. I was worried I may even eventually slip back into my old, non-flossing ways. The next appointment started with a consult with the dentist. She looked at my X-rays and examined my history. And then it happened: "Well, it really doesn't look that bad. Usually when a client comes in after going 6 years without seeing a dentist, we expect it to look a lot worse than this. Your home care must be very good, so keep that up!" I got my compliment, the effort was noticed and praised, and I felt phenomenal. The first few times I flossed, my gums bled quite a bit, but I stuck with it, things got better, and the dentist could tell by looking at my teeth that I HAD put in some work, that I WAS doing a much better job than I did when I was younger. I was stunned by how happy I was to hear that fact acknowledged.

I'm a dog trainer, certified by the Karen Pryor Academy, and I know the power of positive reinforcement. It is our primary tool for dealing with animals. I've read studies detailing its effectiveness and I've seen it help dogs and people, but knowing something on an intellectual level and FEELING it are not the same thing. I felt the power of positive reinforcement when I heard the words "you're doing a good job." I'm typing this with a mouth full of novocaine and an annoying feeling of numbness that makes it hard to speak clearly or chew, but I feel very good.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement is powerful, and there is no such thing as too much of it. Some scientists say 70% of our behavior is reward-seeking; we're fishing for compliments all the time, even when we don't know it. Whenever you see someone doing something worthwhile and doing it well, pay them a compliment. Pay yourself compliments, pat yourself on the back when you do something right, and think twice before offering critisisms. Some constructive criticism is necessary of course, but it should not be the first tool we reach for when dealing with other people, animals, or ourselves. There are SO many things we do every day that are good, maybe you started flossing your teeth recently, maybe you gave a smile to a stranger, or a kind word to a family member, or a little help to a struggling co worker. Maybe you gave money to charity or volunteered somewhere, maybe you just held your tongue when you wanted to say something mean, maybe you held the door for someone, or let someone pass you while driving. Whenever you do something good, give yourself a pat on the back, and pat someone else on the back as well, including your dog (if your dog likes that, not all do!) Do it today, do it often, do it for yourself, do it for others, do it for your pets. It doesn't cost a thing, and it can really make someone's day.

Thanks for reading, I appreciate it!!

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