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Relaxation – Benefits and Limitations

Relaxation techniques can be very useful when used alongside other techniques mentioned in the Help section. This is especially true if you experience panic attacks, and you may want to learn to use relaxation techniques and practice them on a regular basis. They’re not so good when you try to use them on their own – as a sole means of trying to deal with your fears. Here’s why:

“I find that deep-breathing exercises and “self-hypnosis” types of relaxation exercises can and do work. The trouble with them is that they usually work only if you practice them pretty much daily. Add to this the possibility of hyperventilating if the breathing exercises are done incorrectly and the practicality of this approach seems limited. I won’t say don’t try meditating in the examining room, but it may not be the best place to start practising. The exception to this would be a course of relaxation training that was actually undertaken in a dental suite under the direction of a behaviour therapist probably when no examination, cleaning or intervention was scheduled. That said, systematic desensitization with “imagined” stimuli (memories of trips to the dentist) never really helped me. It has been informative, kind and competent dentists who have helped me re-learn (literally) how to be a dental patient – through repeated exposure to good, collaborative care.” (John Harvey, “A Psychologist and Dental Phobic Speaks…”, Journal of the Canadian Dental Association, January 2005)

Having said that, relaxation exercises can and do help. There are lots of different techniques – some more formal, some more informal, some focusing on breathing, some focusing on relaxing your muscles. Here are some common examples:

Square Breathing

“Imagine in your mind travelling round a  square.

Side 1  Breathe in slowly over a count of  3
Side 2  pause for a slow count of 3
Side 3  breathe out slowly over a count of 3
Side 4 pause for a count of 3
And repeat.

By deliberately slowing the breathing down you make it much harder for the body to go in to ‘panic mode’ and therefore much mess likely to tip over the edge of the rollercoaster.”

The above tip comes from Craigentinny’s free Beat Your Dental Fear eCourse. Although Craigentinny Dental Practice is based in Edinburgh, you can subscribe to the e-course regardless of where in the world you are!

Belly Breathing

The following technique comes from Dave Carbonell’s excellent “Panic Attacks Workbook“.

When we panic, we often experience shortness of breath. Our first instinct is to inhale, to get our breath back. But this doesn’t work, because in order to take a deep breath in, you have to first exhale all the air in your lungs. Otherwise, all you get is just another laboured, shallow breath from the chest. Belly breathing helps you with getting good deep breaths, and helps to relax and calm yourself.

Here’s how to learn to belly breathe:

  1. Place one hand so it straddles your belt line and the other on your chest, right over the breastbone. You can use your hands as a simple biofeedback device. They will tell you what part of your body, and what muscles, you are using to breathe.
  2. Open your mouth and sigh as if someone had just told you something really annoying. As you do, let your shoulders and the muscles of your upper body relax downward with the exhalation. The point of the sigh is not to completely empty your lungs – but to relax the muscles of your upper body.
  3. Pause for a few seconds.
  4. Close your mouth. Inhale slowly through your nose by pushing your stomach out. That’s right, push your belly out, just like newborn infants do. This isn’t a beauty contest… When you’ve inhaled as air as you comfortably can, just stop. You’re finished with that inhale.
  5. Pause briefly. How long? You decide. Everybody has different size lungs and counts at a different rate. Pause for whatever time feels comfortable, and be aware that when you breathe this way, you are taking larger breaths than you are used to. For this reason, you should breathe more slowly than you are used to… If you breathe at the same rate you use with small, shallow breaths, you will probably get a little lightheadedness from overbreathing. It’s not harmful. Lightheadedness and yawning are simply signals to slow down. Follow them.
  6. Open your mouth. Exhale through your mouth by pulling your stomach in.
  7. Pause
  8. Close your mouth and go back to the inhale.
  9. Continue for a few minutes until you feel satisfied.

Once you can belly breathe comfortably, you should practice this technique every hour on the hour for a minute or so (you do not need to interrupt what you are doing). And obviously, only during waking hours! E. g. at 1pm, 2pm, 3pm and so on. Over time (a week’s practice or thereabouts), it will become much easier to switch to belly breathing when you feel panic coming on.

You can find more tips and a troubleshooting guide in “The Panic Attacks Workbook”, and on Dave Carbonell’s website:

A Breathing Exercise to Calm Panic Attacks
Deep Breathing – Part 2

And here’s a video demonstration:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This is another popular relaxation technique. It works by isolating one muscle group, making the muscles go tense for 8-10 seconds, and then letting the muscle relax and the tension go. This technique doesn’t work so well in the dental context, because it takes quite a long time until you’ve gone through all the different muscle groups!

However, it really does help to relax your muscles. When we are anxious or when we anticipate pain, we tense our muscles (with many people literally “gripping the chair”!).

You may find that making an active effort to relax your muscles can really help. Concentrate on finding areas of tension in your body and relaxing them, one after the other.

Common areas of tension include your hands (you may want to place them loosely on your belly – that way, you can check that you’re breathing through your belly at the same time), the shoulders, the back, or indeed your whole body.

Self-Hypnosis and Visualisation

Visualisation is a great way of reducing stress... it helps you to relax!!

All joking aside, self-hypnosis and visualisation can be useful both during dental visits and in the run-up to your visit. Unless you’re very serious about learning self-hypnosis, the easiest way is to use a hypnosis CD or mp3. These come in many flavours, such as relax, boost your self-esteem, go to sleep, etc. Hypnosis mp3s which are aimed at “curing dental phobia” are best avoided. We have listened to quite a few samples of these, and without exception, they may actually reinforce your fears or, at best, do nothing to deal with your specific fears. A general relaxation track is much more useful. Most of them incorporate visualisation, for example imagining yourself in a place you enjoy, where you feel safe and secure.

Hypnosis CDs are a very personal thing as their effectiveness is very much dependent on things such as whether you like the speaker’s voice. It is best to “try before you buy” if possible.

Here is a sample mp3 download called “Stressbuster” (for use with stereo headphones) – brought to you by Adam Sargant, who originally created this rapid relaxation session because it annoys him that smokers can go and get a five minute chill out break when things get stressy. So he wrote an exactly 5 minute long relaxation session:

Stress Buster (mp3)

To download this file to your computer:

Windows: right-click the mouse cursor over the link. On the menu that opens, select “Save target as…” and select where you want to save the MP3.
Mac: hold the option or alt key, click on link, then save to your computer.