“It wasn’t that bad last time”… famous last words. My dentist turned on the ultrasound tool, things went flying out of my mouth, it sounded like nails on a chalkboard, and my brain immediately thought this was the worst thing ever. Turns out, a trip to the dentist can be a perfect exercise in sorting sensations and overriding your primitive brain’s programming.
What happened was that my brain immediately assumed that this experience was dangerous and painful. The tool she was using in my mouth was some kind of ultrasound tool for cleaning. All my senses got confused and even though I have no fear of dentists or dental work whatsoever, my brain was like “this can’t be good.”
I saw stuff flying out of my mouth, which made my brain assume that a lot was happening in there. What exactly came flying out? What was she doing? Was the tool destroying my teeth?
I felt the sensation of the tool on my teeth kind of vibrating around, so I knew where she was using it and my brain understood that it was happening in my mouth.
And perhaps most importantly, I heard it. The sound was unbearable. I imagine this is what the mandrakes in Harry Potter sound like… but I also feel like this was worse. It was a sharp, nails on a chalkboard, forks on plates kind of sound that just destroyed my ears. And my ears are pretty sensitive to loud sounds.
This is where my brain got confused.
It assumed that my visual experience and my auditory experience meant that pain was happening in my mouth. That I was in danger. But while I was laying there, I started sorting these sensations to see if I was actually in pain…
Turns out, when I excluded the auditory sensations and only focused on the feeling in my mouth, it felt more or less like an electric toothbrush vibrating around on my teeth. There was zero pain and zero discomfort. That’s when I realized that the pain was only in my ears.
This realization didn’t make the sensory pain go away. My ears were still bleeding from the sound, figuratively speaking. But at that point, it clicked somehow that I’m not in any physical pain or danger and that sound in and of itself can’t physically harm me.
So what does all of this have to do with relationships?
One of the most powerful skills you can develop to change your relationship experience is the ability to hold sensations (feelings) in your body and think about them rationally. If you can understand that any feeling that pops up, whether it’s jealousy, anger, fear, disappointment… they just consist of vibrations and sensations inside of your body. Nothing more, nothing less.
Your brain is creating these feelings through its interpretation of the world around you. So naturally, your brain will try to freak you out or justify why you need to feel sad or disappointed. It’ll show you images in your mind of all the horrible things this might mean or what might happen next. Just like my brain was imagining that the dentist was destroying my teeth simply because of what I was seeing and hearing.
But if you understand on an intellectual level that no emotion in your body can harm you, the way I realized that the sound of this ultrasound machine cannot harm me physically, it helps you stay calm as it happens. It helps you manage your mind and your emotions until the situation or emotion has passed.
Our brains are responsible for all the drama.
You’re not dying. You’re not suffocating. Nobody is strangling you or punching you in the stomach. You are feeling a pressure. You are feeling a tightness. You are feeling a throbbing sensation. And the better you get at describing your emotional experiences in a neutral way, the less scary they will feel. When they feel less scary, you can feel them longer.
And as you might know, the key to managing your reactions and behaviors is to stay in the feeling long enough for it to release and let go…
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