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.
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?