How I faced my fear of the dentist (if it works for cats it can work for you!)

I just got four vaccines yesterday for my upcoming travels, and I was the biggest baby ever! But there was a time I was brave in the face of needles, and this is how I accomplished it…

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 #love

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 panic attacks, 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 and did some researched, 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, Dr Glick, 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

My initial meeting could have gone better. Unfortunately the dental technician didn’t get the memo that this first consultation wasn’t going be business as usual. So she brought me back to a room and strapped that paper napkin around my neck, and I lost my shit. I started shaking and crying and fretting that there had been a giant miscommunication, and I was going to get Little Shop of Horrors-ed…

how i faced my fear of the dentist

So I had already worked myself up into a frenzy (hey, good chance to practice my tools for bringing down my anxiety!) before Dr Glick came in, and realized the mistake. I cried a few times during the initial consultation (hey, good practice for him to see what he was signing up for!), but Dr Glick 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?

9 thoughts on “How I faced my fear of the dentist (if it works for cats it can work for you!)

  1. Sarah Brewer

    Wow I’m so so sorry you have to deal with this. I’m a freak, a legitimate freak, in that I love going to the dentist. Maybe it’s the comfier than average chairs that occasionally massage my back, maybe it’s the fact that I rarely have to have work done, maybe it’s the gentle, sweet hands of my hygienist or maybe its my slight adrenaline addiction, but I look forward to these visits (just not the bill…).

    However, I deal with generalized anxiety the rest of of my life and it’s a bitch. Like the bitchiest unwelcome, life-fucking bitch ever. So I know how feeling like you can’t handle normal adult things like a normal adult can be so demoralizing.

    Huge props to you for choosing to face the dragon rather than compromise your health.

    1. meganfinley

      OMGWHAT!? You are crazy. That’s amazing. I wish wish WISH I loved going to the dentist. I can’t even imagine a world in which that is a thing. 😉

      1. Sarah Brewer

        It’s freakish. I don’t get freaked out about typically stressful things (death, dismemberment, the dentist), but normal every things reduce me into a quivering, crying, anxious mess.

  2. KathyRo

    I’m afraid I have no suggestions on how to deal with the anxiety. But I can volunteer this bit of advice: if you go to the dentist rarely, the teeth cleaning will be much tougher ( more plaque, extra scaling, etc ) and maybe that feeds into the anxiety ( it’s gonna huuuurt…). I suggest for the next year go every 3 months. Just try it for a year and maybe that would also help with the desensitization?

  3. Stripey

    This rang so many bells, especially about shame.

    I am also a dentist phobic and anxiety sufferer and for the years I avoided the dentist I knew full well that I was making it worse and increasing the likelihood of more work by not going, I was also well aware of how this inaction and avoidance on my part only increased my anxiety. What was truly corrosive though was the shame I felt at not being able to cut through this mental nonsense to the simple solution what was so obvious to someone else.

    Eventually when I met my wife, I plucked up the courage. I found my dentist on a website that listed dentists who specialise in nervous patients. I also had an initial consultation where my wife was with me and we agreed the dentist would look in my mouth but there was no work that day. Sure enough I needed a lot a work and I felt deeply ashamed, but my dentist’s gentle slow manner and insistence that whatever was done was all my choice (rather than telling me off and insisting it was all borderline emergency and therefore I was a total nitwit if I didn’t do it all RIGHT NOW as I was dreading) was really invaluable.

    I won’t lie, it was gruelling getting the work done but it was helped by the fact it was my choice (I didn’t feel shamed into it) and by my wife coming with me although waiting outside, she’s not exactly wild about the dentist either. If she couldn’t get off work we agreed I could ring her as soon as I got out so I knew there some relief coming. Planning for it as triggering is very very helpful.

    Now I go twice a year and it helps massively, this particular dentist’s surgery is somewhere I actually now feel safe (although nervous) and in control (so now I can just never relocate….). I also haven’t need any work for about two years of which I am immensely proud! So I would say yes for me there is a continuing desensitiztion effect but it for me it came after the hard work of facing the fear and gettiing the work done.

    1. meganfinley

      I have to go back for round 2 of my fillings being replaced. GAWD that’s nightmarish. But knowing that I’ve done it once, really helps make it “easier” to face the fact that I have to do it again. Really, the hardest part is just getting the fuck into it. So, congrats on that!!!!

  4. Catherine

    Solidarity! My dentist offers conscious sedation, too, which I can’t take advantage of since you need someone to drive you home and I never have that. But it’s an option!

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