In 2017, I had to have a root canal on tooth number eighteen (back, bottom, left side). Considering the number of procedures, (three… on the same tooth, yes, three.) I will remember the tooth number forever.

Rather than get into the details, let me just say that each of the three procedures brought with them immense anxiety before, during, and after. Imagining the worst likely led to a constant releasing of cortisol and adrenaline into my bloodstream.  These are stress hormones, which can make it increasingly difficult for the body to heal.

My heart raced as frustration mounted over a period of nearly two years’ worth of procedures. There was nothing I could do.

In the end, I lost the tooth that I had all of the work done on.

Another Root Canal?

So when I found out that I needed to have another root canal, my heart sank.

(Side note: Stress during the day can cause clenching and grinding of your teeth while you sleep.  Clenching and grinding significantly compromises teeth. If your dentist says that you grind your teeth, especially while sleeping, get a night guard so that for at least ⅓ of each 24 hour period, your teeth are more protected. Trust me on this.)

Not again, I thought, as that tooth became increasingly sensitive to hot and cold.

A New Take On Reality

Finally, I scheduled an appointment with the endodontist.  

Two days before the procedure, I heard these words of wisdom: ”Your brain can only do one thing at a time.”

I had heard this idea from many spiritual leaders, but never in this context. It was a concrete way for me to understand how to help my own brain to stop releasing stress hormones.

Elizabeth Kobler Ross conveyed a similar lesson in this way, “Love and fear cannot coexist.”

In other words, you cannot be in an emotional state of love and fear at the same time. Your brain can only process one emotion at a time.

Remembering A Different Approach In the Moment

Walking into the endodontist’s office, I felt my heart rate increase. Rather than go down the rabbit hole of fear, I decided to experiment with this theory. Little did I know to what extent I would be testing!

Before I sat down in the chair to get numbed, I started naming (inside my head) several things that I was grateful for in the moment. Here were a few that came to mind immediately:

  • The office space was well-maintained and very nice,
  • The staff was kind, generous, and compassionate,
  • One staff member actually said these words: “I don’t know what it is about root canals, but I love doing them.” (If you have to have a root canal, you want the doctor and the staff to love their job!)

Soon after he injected the numbing medication, my heart rate and fearful thoughts escalated. Not only did I have my thinking to deal with, but the numbing medication (it has epinephrine in it) made my heart race even more.

Doubling Down On Positive

Recognizing my increasing pulse (and the fearful thoughts that came with it), I intentionally doubled-down on listing gratitudes…

  • Not too long ago, you couldn’t even get a root canal. The tooth would have had to be removed
  • Numbing medication hasn’t always been available
  • The equipment in the office is top-of-the-line
  • The chair is (relatively) comfortable
  • I have good dental insurance

As I continued listing, I actually felt my heart rate come down. In fact, I was so calm on his table that I didn’t realize nearly two and a half hours (apparently this tooth was difficult) had passed. It certainly wasn’t comfortable. But my approach also slowed and possibly even prevented copious amounts of stress-inducing hormones from being released.

I walked out of his office calm. Not only did I feel better in the moment, but it gave my tooth a better chance for faster healing.

A Better Outcome By Tricking Your Brain To Be Positive

When you find yourself struggling with anxiety, fear, or depression as you navigate life’s challenges, consider testing the theory — your brain can only do one thing at a time.

The moment you notice anger or fear bubbling, or feel your heart rate increasing:

  1. Pause
  2. Notice your thoughts
  3. Remember that your brain can only do one thing at a time
  4. Intentionally focus your mind on the good in your life
  5. Hug yourself for helping your mind and body have a more positive experience

While it’s not the easiest practice (because we tend to get tripped up in escalating our fears and anger), practicing these steps will help shift your results in a positive direction.

Misti Burmeister has been helping leaders boost engagement and productivity across generations for nearly two decades. Help your team reach its highest potential at