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  • Mindfulness and Pain – a view from the Dentist’s chair

Does the thought of a visit to the dentist bring you out in a cold sweat, fill you with palpitations and conjure up images in your mind of a Laurence Olivier type figure asking you – ‘Is it Safe?’ as he delves into your cavity?

If so this article is for you, because today we’re talking about mindfulness and pain.

If you haven’t seen the 1976 classic film Marathon Man in which Olivier starred alongside Dustin Hoffman and you’re wondering what on earth I’m on about, the photo below is from the infamous ‘Is it Safe?’ scene, where Hoffman’s tooth is prodded and poked over vigorously, to see if he may just be withholding information.  I’ll say no more!

Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man

In real life, trips to the dentist can be a cause of worry and many situations can act as potential triggers for stress and consternation – as we envisage fear or potential pain.

It was therefore with great interest that on starting Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman’s book Mindfulness for Health I came across a fascinating excerpt on the nature of pain.

But what has the dentist, mindfulness and pain got to do with each other?

I’ll tell you all when I shortly explain my own trip to the dentist, and how I used mindfulness to lessen the pain of the dentist’s drill.  But to understand that we need to understand what pain is.

So here’s a quick video to illustrate a summary of Burch and Penman’s thoughts on pain.

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So if the thoughts and emotions flowing through your mind have a dramatic effect on your experience and intensity of pain and suffering – what is suffering?


Suffering occurs on two levels: primary and secondary suffering.

Primary suffering’ is the actual sensations felt in the body.  This is the raw data that is sent to your brain from say an injury, or in my case the sensations caused by the dentist’s drill.

On top of this is ‘secondary suffering’, which is made up of all the thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories associated with pain.  And guess what?  If we’re thinking of going to the dentist that may well include anxiety, stress and worry we have stored in our minds of previous experiences (including those memories for me of that 1976 film classic Marathon Man).

The pain and stress you actually experience is a combination of the two.

So meanwhile, I’m back in the dentist’s chair and facing the prospect of having a tooth refilled.  I’m not terrified of dentists but I had a bad experience of a wisdom tooth being removed many years back and this shall we say, left a nasty taste in my mouth, not to mention the back of my mind.

As I was tipped back in the dentist’s chair, I was thinking about mindfulness and how it helps you to view sensations as the actual (primary) sensation rather than the mind’s interpretation of that sensation (e.g. “this is going to be painful” secondary suffering type thought).  In the past I would be thinking about something else other than what was going on, but mindfulness teaches you a different approach of moving towards an examination of the difficulty.

So I thought I would take this mindful approach and examine the actual sensation, i.e. the primary suffering.  Although my mind wanted to move to thoughts about what might happen I kept bringing my attention back to the actual sensation and whilst not particularly pleasant (you can’t avoid the primary sensation) it was really quite bearable and certainly far less than if I had allowed my mind to dwell on concerns over the pain that could be.

In that instant, I had true awareness of one of the significant benefits of mindfulness – the ability to be able to separate the two elements of pain – the actual pain and the thought of pain.

So next time you’re worried about something you might like to try:

  1. Moving towards the experience.
  2. Examining the actual sensations of the experience.
  3. Being aware of thoughts projecting ahead to what you think the experience might be.
  4. Bringing your thoughts back to the actual sensations as they are occurring in that present moment.

What do you think about this technique?  Have you tried it?  If so, what was your experience?  Let us know below.

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