My Journey through Dental Phobia and Out the Other Side.

07 Apr 15
I would not usually self disclose as a therapist, but on this occasion it seems appropriate and may hopefully help others see that there is a way to overcome a deep seated fear. So here is a short version of my journey through dental phobia.

I was ok visiting the school dentist as a child – I recall having teeth out with gas and helping another child who’d had some teeth out stay calm afterwards. I didn’t enjoy visiting the dentist, but I went regularly without any real fear.

On leaving school, I remained with my childhood dentist and visited his private practice. This is where my fear began. On stating something he was doing was hurting, he abruptly told me it wasn’t and carried on. It was hurting – I had very sensitive teeth so even the cold water hurt. I may have had a low pain threshold back then, but it didn’t change that in that moment all trust was lost. I didn’t visit a dentist following this for quite some time.

Mother Nature then intervened with the joy of wisdom teeth! They were growing into the roof of my mouth and would have caused my teeth to become crooked. A visit to the dentist was inevitable causing me extreme panic and sleepless nights. I was distracted, irritable and anxious.

Sound familiar?

I then learned of a dentist a fair drive away that would sedate me – properly sedate me, knock me out to take care of the wisdom teeth and the filling I also needed all whilst I was asleep. Perfect! They were very nice and my relief when it was all over was immense! Of course my bank balance was also seriously dented but knowing I had this option meant I started having regular check ups again. Over time, this started to slide – the dentist was quite a drive and should I need any work it was going to cost me way more than anyone else I knew was paying for conscious treatment. Besides – I looked after my teeth, flossing and brushing regularly so it was fine not to need check ups…

Some years later I was told of a local dentist who offered sedation. I was older and wiser and as my bank balance had recovered I decided I’d pop in for a check up. I say ‘pop in’, but it was a huge effort – I had sleepless nights prior to the visit, upset tummy and feeling anxious and some difficulty breathing. But I understood the longer I left a visit, the more chance there was in the future of needing to spend a lot longer in the dreaded dentists chair.

Seemed I needed a clean and fillings….

The sedation they offered was not the knock out I’d had for my wisdom teeth removal – it would just feel like having had a few vodkas so I wouldn’t be stressed and even that aware of what was happening. A few vodkas would most definitely have been a cheaper option! All the work had to be charged at a private rate as I was having sedation and it cost me a pretty penny with the fee for the sedation. Interestingly, I was more afraid this time than when having extractions when I was younger. I had no choice but to go – my logical mind told me it would only be worse if I ignored the need for fillings.

Again, I decided I had to keep up visits but following a couple of scale and polishes I let it slide. The stress I was putting my body under couldn’t have been healthy, it certainly didn’t feel it! My sensitive teeth were also incredibly painful for days following a scale and polish which lead to my thinking it wasn’t good for me and was causing my mouth damage.

So once again I was winging it. Keeping my teeth clean and hoping for the best.

During this time my interest in psychology was growing and I began studying and working with a variety of psychological conditions including phobias. I was learning about and applying with clients knowledge of distorted thinking, vicious cycles, reinforcing negative beliefs, catastrophising, fortune telling, the list goes on. Through clinical hypnotherapy, CBT and NLP I had helped people overcome their own personal fears. So why not apply this knowledge to myself? I knew hypnotherapy worked as I’d overcome my arachnophobia some years earlier with it.

I’ve spent the last 10 years living close to a local dentist and hearing very good things about everyone who worked there. I was hearing how people who were afraid of the dentist chose to visit this one. No one I spoke to was necessarily phobic, but plenty who were very nervous chose to visit them. I started to wonder what was so special about this place and that maybe it was time I took control of my mind and my fears instead of them controlling me.

So there I was, using my hypnosis training teamed with my NLP and CBT training facing a demon that had too long resided inside me. It took commitment and courage, but like many things in this life, you have to want something badly enough in order to make it happen. How could I help others with their fears when I wasn’t facing my own?

I now know that all dentists are not created equal. Part of overcoming dental phobia is finding a great dentist. Trust is key – my trust had been shattered as a young adult and instead of facing up to it I chose sedation. How could I ever learn to overcome my fear if I didn’t face it? Constantly running away simply reinforced the fear and people do have a tendency to let their imaginations run riot with their fears thus creating even worse scenarios than actually occurred or would ever occur. It’s only by being consciously aware could I know my fears could be laid to rest. Following a check up, I had a scale and polish and three teeth needed sealing. This involves surface drilling of the tooth and a protective coating being applied. No anaesthetic is needed as the drilling isn’t deep. I was told we could spread the treatment out over as many visits as I wanted, one tooth at a time or all in one visit, however felt best for me.

I did it!

I sat in that chair with the loveliest dental surgeon and dental nurse, they were patient, empathetic and hugely reassuring. Had I been sedated I would never have learned there really was nothing to fear. I even declined to use my iPod to block out the drill noise. This sound is a common trigger – if I blocked it out I would never learn that the noise was not to be feared. The truth of it was that I wasn’t even certain when the drill was initially being used: it was far quieter than I had ever imagined in my mental story-telling of the dreaded drill. The stuff of horror stories and nightmare scenarios of this crazed demon brandishing a high pitched whizzing pointy drill to stick in my face really is as far from the truth as one could ever be! Was I not aware of how damaging this image was to me, it would be almost laughable now.

On reflection….

It’s important to take the time to find a dentist who completely understands your fears, who takes their time with you and is happy to talk through your fears and concerns. A good dentist may sympathise – a great dentist will empathise. This too applies to the staff as a whole, finding somewhere with welcoming, friendly reception staff and dental nurses is all part of the positive experience. A surgery that doesn’t smell like a dentists is a great start! If when you enter it smells nice, this is the first sign that they understand and take action to support their fearful patients. A comfortable environment, nice images, not walls full of images of gum disease designed to instil fear is also a good sign. But what is key is finding somewhere that has time for you, if a dentist won’t take the time to chat through your fears, find one that will.

I now work with my dentist to support fearful and phobic patients. We work as a team helping patients understand and overcome their fears through clinical hypnotherapy and hugely effective NLP, CBT and mindfulness techniques. This is along with the patience and knowledge of a great team of dental professionals. I cannot fully explain the relief and the liberation that comes from facing any fear, it’s an empowering experience. When that fear is one that will most likely have to be faced sooner or later, why not make it sooner?

One particularly interesting point is how our ego almost desires to hold onto our fears. I was very mindful of my thoughts whilst working through my fear leading up to my dental visits. Ones that recurred quite often were ‘shouldn’t I be more scared by now? Your appointment is in a few/couple of days, your appointment is tomorrow/ I should be really nervous now’ and so forth. It appears to me this is connecting with how we define ourselves. People are not always good with change, even when that change is for the better. My fear defined me – or a part of me at least and my mind almost struggled to identify with me not being as afraid as I had been over the years. I chose to let that fear go, to let a part of me that defined me in a negative way dissipate and instead see things as they are in the now. My mind is still struggling to fully accept this new me, but what is becoming stronger is my minds difficulty in recalling why I allowed this fear to define me in the first place.

In and of itself, some fear of the dentist is understandable and not in truth completely irrational.

It is however the thoughts surrounding dental treatment that are irrational. I used the endearing term ‘The Head Butcher’ instead of ‘Dental Surgeon’ for many years. I now understand how this distorted thinking, though clearly a defence mechanism, only reinforced the irrational thoughts and feelings I was already developing around dental visits. Images of the terror of the dental visit are vivid and if the power of our thoughts can be used to reinforce our fears, then the power of our thoughts can also be used to overcome that fear.