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Can you master the art of ‘mindful brushing’?

By Dr. Toby Edwards-Lunn

It is great to be back in practice and finally able to catch up with all my patients. I am lucky that nearly all are long-standing patients at the practice with relatively stable mouths. As a group, their dental health has held up well over lockdown. And their inability to receive our care at the practice has not led to any DIY tooth extractions like the painful-looking ones you may have seen on social media. 

That said, I have noticed that some of my patients’ usual exemplary daily dental regimes have slipped. So I’ve been racking my brains to come up with a new and memorable idea to get their routines back on track. Something to improve my patients’ oral health but with an added bonus for or twist. (This was a challenge, as I’ve always found trying to make the subject of brushing your teeth interesting mildly ridiculous. It just isn't sexy, is it?)

Research carried out during lockdown reported that 44% of people only brush once a day. And a whopping 18% do not even brush once a day. But, interestingly, my patients’ problem is not a lack of brushing. I’m in the lucky position that the majority of my patients listen to my advice and brush twice or at least once every day. Their problem is that they’re not doing it effectively. (As I’ve always said: effectiveness, not frequency, is the key to cleaning your teeth. Plaque is sticky stuff and you have to use the right tool, with the correct technique for the right amount of time to do any good.)

For instance, one common sight is a teenage patient with immaculately clean back teeth who has seemingly forgotten they also own a set of front teeth. The reason? They’d fallen into the common trap of brushing teeth outside of their bathroom so they could be doing something else at the same time. When your attention is taken by a distraction (usually of the online variety), your toothbrush will often stay on your back teeth as you go on autopilot, while your front teeth are forgotten. This then happens the next time. And the next.

So how can I change this behaviour? I understand why some of my patients aren’t focussed on their brushing: they are busy people, with their minds on the next thing coming up in their hectic lives. The school run, the commute (though less so recently), the important lecture or sales presentation. They are not present in the brushing moment. And if someone isn’t fully focussed on what they’re doing, how can they do a good job?

This got me thinking.

There has been lots of discussion about mindfulness in recent years and perhaps even more since lockdown. But here’s a quick recap for anyone who’s not been, ahem, paying attention:

Being mindful is described as ‘focusing our awareness on the present moment especially as a therapeutic or a meditative technique’. Research shows that mindfulness boosts our ability to regulate our emotions and reduces stress, anxiety and depression. As an exercise which is done regularly, it also helps us to practise focussing our attention. These are huge positives that anyone and everyone could benefit from. 

So here’s my big idea: making brushing your teeth part of a daily mindfulness routine. My patients are already spending two minutes twice a day brushing their teeth. If they practised mindfulness at the same time, this would combine all the health benefits I just mentioned with cleaner teeth.

If you’d like to try it, here’s my three-point plan for mindful brushing:

>Focus on the actual brushing, not least by staying in the bathroom to do it. Another tip: don’t look in the mirror as you brush or, even better, close your eyes. This will focus your mind on the physical sensation of the brush moving around your mouth.

>Focus on intention: why are you doing it?

>Focus on how you are doing it, working through each set of movements and areas of your mouth in turn to create a grooved daily routine. (Practice makes perfect.)

Taking just four minutes out of your day to focus on this simple practical task could really make a difference, to you and your teeth. 

A final thought: if you’re in any way unsure how best to brush, ask your dentist or hygienist at your next visit and they will happily pass on the most up-to-date advice. You can also find a dentists’ guide to brushing, written by me and my colleague Dr. Mike Heffernan, here