How I faced my fear of the dentist: If it works for me (and cats) it can work for you

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White knuckling it at the dentist again today. Thankfully the last procedure for while. This took 10-ish years of avoidance. 2 years of therapy. And 1 amazing dentist buddy. Thank you, @whatsmikeeatingnow. I really hope you regain feeling in your fingers a lot faster this time around. #dentistbuddiesforlife #biggestfear #love
White knuckling it at the dentist again today. Thankfully the last procedure for while. This took 10-ish years of avoidance. 2 years of therapy. And 1 amazing dentist buddy. Thank you, @whatsmikeeatingnow. I really hope you regain feeling in your fingers a lot faster this time around. #dentistbuddiesforlife #biggestfear

I’m not just afraid of the dentist. More accurately, I have a “shut down completely, cry when I even THINK about going, prescription drugs are not enough to calm me, once made a dentist too upset to continue working on my mouth, trauma response-level” fear of the dentist.

Until this past year, I hadn’t been to the dentist in almost 10 years. The last time I went, being the aforementioned visit where I made the dentist so upset that he had to call it a day. Yeah, my full-blown panic attack made that professional dentist too upset to do professional dentistry.

What’s that you’re thinking? “What about laughing gas?” “What about drugs?” We tried that. My last dentist gassed me up until the point of “being too dangerous to gas you any further,” and it had ZERO effect. My anxiety level was so high that it ninja kicked that gas straight out of my system. And Valium? It works for the hour before the appointment, and then, when ass meets dentist chair, all the effects disappear.

Which means (for those of you who also have a general anxiety disorder, sing it along with me…) shaking, sweating through every layer of clothing, shallow breathing/hyperventilating, chest tightness, blurry vision, tears, nausea, the works.

I was recently talking to a friend, who also has a fear of the dentist, and she asked how I conquered my fear and went to the dentist, not once but THREE times this past year. My answer was that I did NOT conquer my fear, but I did do this…

1. Get a therapist

Do you have a therapist? Great, you’re one step ahead. If you don’t, get one. Try to find that one that specializes in, or has experience with, irrational fears. My therapist happens to be amaze-balls, but she’d never worked with an intense fear. So she used it as an opportunity for her own growth, as well as mine, and she reached out to her colleagues, did some extra research, and we tackled this bitch together.

2. Practice systematic desensitization: If it works for cats it can work for you!

Systematic desensitization, or exposure therapy, is unfortunately an effective way to overcome phobias. I say “unfortunately” because it involves living out your worst fears over and over and over again. From Wikipedia:

In the 1950s, [South African psychiatrist, Joseph Wolpe] discovered that the cats of Wits University could overcome their fears through gradual and systematic exposure. The process of systematic desensitization occurs in three steps. The first step of systematic desensitization is the identification of an anxiety inducing stimulus hierarchy. The second step is the learning of relaxation or coping techniques. When the individual has been taught these skills, he or she must use them in the third step to react towards and overcome situations in the established hierarchy of fears. The goal of this process is for the individual to learn how to cope with, and overcome the fear in each step of the hierarchy.

Basically, as I sat in the safety of my therapists’ office, she would mentally walk me through the dental procedure… “Now you’re in the chair. How do you feel?” “Now the dentist is putting the bib around your neck. What do you feel and where are you feeling it?” And it’s crazy how just thinking about it on that level can put your mind right in the midst of all that panic. Once you’re at a 10 on the panic scale, you (with the aid of your therapist) work on the tools that will help you to bring down the anxiety. All in preparation for that fateful day, when this isn’t just practice, and that dentist chair is real.

3. Choose a dentist

If you’re super-duper scared, you probably don’t have a dentist, because FUCK THAT SHIT. If that describes you, then see if your therapist has a recommendation, or knows how to get the name of a good dentist who has dealt, or even specializes, in anxious patients. In my case, my therapist offered up her dentist. This was a dream arrangement. She called up her boy, told him of my case, asked if he was game, and he said yes.

no touchy

4. Arrange a NO TOUCHY meeting with your dentist candidate

After therapy sessions, this felt like the most crucial step for me. My would-be-dentist agreed to meet with me first just to talk — no touchy. His fingers would never see the inside of my mouth until I was ready. That way I could calmly talk about my fears, my concerns, and my demands. Which were many. Here were the notes I jotted down to address with my dentist:

  • Nervous about knowing how much work might have to happen + Anxiety about feeling shamed = Please present the damage in the most nonchalant way possible.
  • Think about what I want to know and don’t. Ask what he thinks about me having a look at all his cleaning tools?
  • Prescription for anxiety meds. It didn’t work the first couple times.
  • Don’t talk to me while stuff is my mouth. If you need to talk, fine, but don’t ask questions.
  • Is it cool if I have a dentist buddy?
  • Warm him about what I might be like. Crying, sweating, shaking. It makes me feel better to know you know. Maybe when it happens to take a deep breath and that its okay. Having him check in, if he’s ever feeling unsure.
  • Dental insurance v. Cash

I cried a few times during the initial consultation (hey, good practice for the doc to see what he was signing up for!), but he handled it with a calm-yet-good-humored demeanor that made me feel like we’d be a good fit. He was hired on the spot.

5. Ask for drugs

Valium is my friend. I need to take two an hour before I go in. Although, as I said, when ass meets chair I don’t feel like I’m on drugs AT ALL. I’d hate to see how I’d be without ’em though.

6. Get a dentist buddy with strong nerves

Luckily I had a very understanding fiancé. But really… in that moment… I don’t care WHO you are, just let me squeeze your hand as hard as I possibly can. Apparently Mike couldn’t feel the tip of one of his fingers for a week after his first dentist buddy experience. So make sure your dentist buddy swaps out their hands occasionally to avoid nerve damage.

7. Now you’re ready to schedule a cleaning

I have to say, the cleaning SUCKED, but it was not as bad as I expected it to be. After doing steps 1-6, I was more ready than ever to face my fear. And, with Mike’s hand in mine, Valium coursing through my bloodstream, and my anxiety tool kit at the ready, I sat, sweated, and whimpered my way through the cleaning and came out a fucking champ.

Well… a champ that needed four fillings replaced. But that’s a story for another day.

Anyone else face their intense fear of the dentist? How did YOU do it? What would you recommend to others?

Comments on How I faced my fear of the dentist: If it works for me (and cats) it can work for you

  1. I don’t have as bad a time at the dentist but I do have a very definite anxiety spike when I go. I’ve identified these as the reasons.
    1. Low pain tolerance. My tolerance for pain / discomfort is basically -1 when it come to teeth stuff. I’ll fight my way through the most painful migraine imaginable but just one poke of my gums is enough to send me running from the chair.
    2. Shameful feelings. I smoke a pack a day, I drink coffee daily, I don’t floss, I don’t do mouthwash. I brush my teeth in the morning and at night, maybe a third time after work if they feel funky. Yes, my teeth are discolored, yes I have receding gum-lines (so does my Dad), yes I get cavities. Don’t make me feel like shit about myself because of it. Because if I did take perfect care of my teeth you (dental hygienist who likes to make me feel like shit) wouldn’t have a job!
    Like you, I just didn’t go to the dentist for about … 4 years or so, until I could tell that I definitely had a cavity. Then I sucked it up and went and have been pretty good about my bi-yearly cleanings. I do request a very small amount of gas, a couple breath fulls, prior to cleanings and more breath fulls than that if the procedure requires Novocaine and drills. I had a very frank conversation with the dentist about her hygienist and told her that I didn’t appreciate being made to feel bad about how I take care of my teeth every time I come in. I told her that right or wrong they are my teeth, I will take care of them (or not) how I please, and I’m not paying for a lecture I’m paying to have them cleaned. Since that conversation the hygienists just cleans my teeth and moves on.
    So, hang in there. You are definitely not alone. 🙂

    • Oh yes, feeling SHAAAAAAMED was also a big part of my anxiety. Part of our convo was me saying, “if you get the xrays back, and I’m a gigantic mess, PLEASE don’t tell me. Act like it ain’t no thang when you’re in the room. And then feel free to scream in horror when you’re away from me.” 😉

      • Yesssss, especially when you *know* your teeth are REALLY bad. I mean, I had a mirror, I could see the rot, I was totally aware that things were bad when I couldn’t eat solid foods – telling ‘wow you did a bad job brushing lol’ is NOT helpful. It’s hard not to fear that your mouth is going to end up being the worst they’ve ever seen, and that kept me away for years and years and years and just made everything worse in the end.

      • Oof. This is the total opposite for me. I’ve had a history of bad dental work, so when someone isn’t honest with me about what’s going on, I can’t trust them. I guess it’s all about being transparent with what you really want out of the interaction.

  2. My anxiety dropped once I realized as an adult I actually request the Dentist I prefer. I have a lady dentist now. When I call for an appointment, I can request her.

    When I was a kid we went to a lot of cheap and rushed dentists. I never had the same person twice we may not have even visited the same office more than a couple times.

    I know when I go in. I’ll be in one of two rooms and she’ll be talking about her kids. I also I know the two dental hygienists will ask me about my job. There’s like a rhythm to it.

    New places and new people just compound all the other anxiety so having the same person, has been amazing.

    I highly recommend doing a meet and greet visit like the OP did, no services just a chance to ask questions. You’re just getting a feel for the office and the dentist. If something doesn’t feel right go somewhere else.

  3. Although I don’t have a general fear of dentists, as someone who has put off getting my wisdom teeth out for 15 years due to a very similar fear response this article has been very helpful.

  4. ERMERGERD MEGAN! My husband has been trying to get my to go to the dentist for years and I have never been able make myself, even for the sake of my dearest one. Full fledged panic. I actually shared this posting with him (I tried reading it out loud, but said panic choked me), which is huge. Thanks to this, I feel like going to the… *say it, woman!…* the dentist might be a possibility in the near-ish future. Please, keep them coming. The support feels wonderful. Thanks again, Megan!

    • YOU CAN DO IT! Seriously, if *I* can do it — the most weasel-y chicken shit baby in the whole world — it really does mean that it’s possible for anyone. I’m here to virtually hold your hand!!! (It’s the non-nerve damage-y way.) 😉

  5. My beloved childhood dentist died a few years back and I haven’t been in since :-/ He was great – super conservative about unnecessary treatments, I don’t think he ever even gave me a filling, just some sealants on areas that looked like they might develop problems later. I went to another dentist ONE TIME when I lived on the other side of the country and he gave me like, 14 fillings – almost all of which fell out later. Childhood dentist basically looked at what was left and was like “Eh, if they don’t hurt, they’re okay, just keep ’em clean.” I’m finally at the point now (about 6 years later) that some of those old cavity holes have decay again, and now am without dentist or insurance. So. That’s great. I don’t have suuuper bad dental anxiety but I do have really bad DRUG anxiety, so having to use any kind of anesthetic is a big deal for me. I have to have the novocaine without the “upper” ingredient (which makes it work better/last longer but will also send me into the stratosphere) and I feel like a pain in the ass asking for it – not to mention worrying that they won’t know what I’m talking about or will just do whatever they normally do anyway. (It was bad enough the time the coffee shop gave me regular chai instead of decaf, you do NOT want to give me a regular ‘caine drug, thanks.)

  6. I am a dental assistant. All of these things are great tips. Just let us know what you need and then we will totally work with you to get your dental work done. Despite popular belief, we want to help you and help get to your teeth before talking about needing dentures.

    The only thing that might be a tiny bit of an issue is your buddy staying in the room the whole time. I know for some procedures we need to get up and get things in the middle of it and it’s time sensitive, so usually for those procedures we will allow your friend to stay until the procedure is properly started, like after we already delivered the anesthetic. We just don’t want to run over your friend trying to get something and slow things down.

    The worst thing anyone can do though is just not go in fear of what work they may done. Dental needs never go away, they only get worse with time. When your mouth DOESNT hurt is the time to go because when you got a toothache it’s no longer a simple procedure. Go before the pain starts – we don’t want to do root canals or extractions unless absolutely necessary – fillings are easier on everyone involved.

  7. I’m not afraid of the dentist, but I’m terrified of blood draws. And I did very similar steps to get over it. I took my sister a few times to talk to me and hold my hand, and now I’m not shy about saying “what I need “don’t tell me what you’re going to do, and don’t let me see the needle! Tell me what you did after it’s done” A lot of phlebotomists have told me that they like knowing I’m nervous, and/or what I need to feel comfortable because they aren’t trying to freak me out. And if the phlebotomist is not listening to me, I’ve learned that saying “I’ll come back when someone else is here” or “can someone else do this?” helps. I used to be embarrassed or didn’t want to hurt the person’s feelings, but I now learned that I shouldn’t be scared because the person isn’t listening to me. It’s made it SO much easier for me now, and I don’t even need someone to go with me to hold my hand.

    • Cassie, sorry for the incorrect reply! I was going to detail how I had been in a similar situation, but then had to get over it. But then I thought that might upset you and thought I’d better not. I forgot I was set up to reply to you when I commented.

  8. Recently, both here and other places on the internet, I have seen people working to overcome their fears. This is awesome and I heartily commend these people. However, I have ophidiophobia, and people whose articles I’ve read have been overcoming fears that are necessary in life (flying, elevators, the dentist). I live fairly close to Seattle, so I really only see a handful of s-words in the summer. In situations like the zoo, I don’t go near the exhibit. If the appear in a tv show or something, I get tense, but it’s not completely unmanageable. My question is, should I just carry on with my life? Or should I get treatment, as it has caused some issues in my life (ie, I wake up from nightmares about snakes and can’t get back to sleep because I’m convinced there’s a snake in the room or a couple weeks ago I got back from a trip to Arizona and didn’t unpack my bag for a week because I’d convinced myself a rattlesnake had got in my bag while it was out of my possession)?

    • Hell, I’ll always advocate for self-improvement, even if it’s not for things that really impact your daily life. Because the tools I learned in all my therapy endeavors — big deals or little deals — help on the DAILY. Even if you don’t “fix” your phobia, in the process you’ll probably learn things about yourself and your body and your mind that you never even knew. It’s pretty fascinating!

  9. Oh man this …

    So I had several not so great dentist experiences, including braces, being shamed for not brushing enough (when I totally WAS), and then being told that they were going to ‘wait and see’ on a cavity that was causing me pain.

    I didn’t go back to the dentist for over 10 years. The last year before I went to one was the worst ever. I knew my mouth was in trouble, and I *knew* it was going to be a lot of expensive work that I couldn’t afford, so that added to the panic. But after about eight months of a nonstop combo sinus infection/double abscess, and being unable to eat solid foods or even go to work sometimes because of the pain, I had to do something.

    I never really got over my fear? I just … forced myself to go, because they literally was no other option other than die. And it was so hard. I didn’t have money for a therapist, and I was limited to the low cost clinics and students. I went to maybe five different dentists in those early few months, trying to find one I could work with, or one that might have better options for me. I managed to get one abscessed tooth pulled at one place, but they second they couldn’t do, and everyone I called was quoting me $500 base price, which was … impossible for me.

    I got really lucky that, in my desperation, I tried calling one more place. They were willing to get me in the next day and even did a temp filling for pain relief for free until the antibiotics kicked in enough to pull it. The assistants and dentist I dealt with there were so patient and kind and soothing, it was unlike anywhere I’d been before. Their assessment was about the same as everyone else’s, but this time, I actually thought they could help. I even managed to deal with the next most terrifying part (asking my parents for help paying).

    It’s been almost two years now since that first visit in which I cried silently, nonstop, and couldn’t even bring myself to look at the dentist. Now, I can’t say I look forward to going, but I feel calm about it, and I enjoy interacting with everyone there as people. I can actually eat again, and in a few months I’ll have the last procedure done (end damage was six pulled teeth, two root canals w/crowns, eight crowns, and four implants w/crowns, about $20k).

    I got a lot of support through the dental fear forums, which I recommend to anyone feeling even a little it nervous, and I really can’t stress enough the importance of finding a dentist that is a really good fit for you. Which make take several tries, and there may be several dentists you go to that are ‘fine’ but don’t feel quite right. Acknowledge that your fear drives you, but still listen to whatever it is that doesn’t let you quite trust them (one that I went to that was ‘ok’ ended up leaving under a cloud of malpractice issues).

    • Well done!! I am at the beginning of the process of getting back to a Dentist. I had my first appointment a couple of weeks ago and I’m going back this week for two fillings. She was a lovely dentist – understanding, no judgements – so I hope that means we can build a relationship to help me reduce the level of panic I go through.

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