I spent the first 41 years of my life avoiding the dentist unless I was already in pain. There's not some deep, dark, traumatic dental experience that caused this. I was never cut, stabbed, or drilled in a way that made me turn and run when my dental office called, begging me to come in for a cleaning.
All I know is that when it comes to the dentist, I freak before I'm even in the door. Once I get in, the lights are too bright, I feel like I'm choking when I hang upside down in the chair, and I want to punch the doctor or hygienist that aggressively reminds me to breath (amongst other stupid things dentists say). To be clear, I've never punched a dentist. It is very hard to do while you're convulsively sobbing.
But last year I resolved to put my big girl panties on and get it under control. To put it in perspective, I started in February of 2020. By December, I had been to the office eleven times, spending almost ten thousand dollars. My fear is by no means gone, but my intelligence and creativity now hold its hands each time we march through the door.
I used to schedule my dentist appointments at the end of the day, knowing I'd be a little wrung out afterwards. While there's a certain logic to that, my personal sweet spot is now mid-morning appointments. This allows me to prepare in the early morning, when I'm fresh and rested, and then have the rest of my day to forget how scared I was, and remember myself as a human being who is not confounded by "everyday" tasks. Your preferred appointment time will be unique for you, but it is worth it to try out a few variations.
I also eat differently before the dentist. No dairy the night before or morning of, so that I don't have heightened discomfort from being phlegmy. I lay off the caffeine, because I don't need one more thing making me jittery, or tricking my bladder into thinking I have to pee halfway through a procedure. Besides, a fancy coffee drink that I don't have to make myself is a nice little treat to celebrate my victory after I'm done.
Finally, I keep it very quiet in the apartment before I go. Sometimes I meditate, other days I take a nice early morning walk or cup of mint tea on the porch. Then I pick clothes that will be warm enough, but aren't constricting in any way. I tend to my skin with lots of lavender lotion (I dry out when I'm stressed), and I cue up my dental playlist on Spotify (a selection of bass laden songs to balance out the high pitched drill). For those of you who are not dentalphobes, it probably sounds a little involved, but for those of you who share my fear, it really does help to come in prepared.
Choose How to Communicate
I tend to lose my voice quite easily when I'm scared. If I let it, this escalates the fear, as I now imagine all kind of terrible scenarios happening in which I won't be able to speak up for myself. Thus, I've had to learn how to communicate with the dental team in a way that works for me. Most of my communication with my dentist happens through email. While searching for a new dentist prior to last year, anyone who was bad about email was automatically off my list.
This gives me the ability to ask questions or ask for accommodations in a time when I'm not stressed. It also lowers the embarrassment factor of having so many strangers watch me break down during most visits. Even if I break down in their presence, I can come across as intelligent and witty while in the comfort of my home. Again, try out things that work for you, if being coherent in-office is not an option. I don't even mind admitting that I partook of some medically enhanced calm before those first five or six visits. It took the edge off just enough to allow me to speak my needs and dislikes.
Somatic Stress Management
Once I'm in the chair, shit gets real. I'm sweating, my heart is pounding, and I sometimes start crying as soon as I sit down. Besides my playlist, here are some other things I've learned.
First off, you can sit up in the chair until it's medically necessary for them to lower you. If you can, make that preference clear. If you're waiting for someone to come see you or for novocaine to kick in, you can make the decision to sit up yourself (provided you don't have equipment hanging out of your mouth already). Put your feet on the floor during this time, even if you feel silly mounting the dental chair like a horse. Breathe. Breathing is an automatic process, but observing your breath takes it to the next level of benefit.
While your dentist is working, take your attention down to your feet, ankles, knees. Bounce, wiggle, flex, anything to take your focus off everything that is happening in and near your head. This has been one of the most miraculous dental hacks I've found in this last year. That and unclenching my anus...try it, I promise you'll be surprised at the deeper level of calm it makes possible. Also, because butts are endlessly funny, it will bring some much needed humor to your visit.
Finally, don't be afraid to ask for a break. The worst they can do is say, 'no,' and if they do, then you definitely want to question if this is the dentist for a dentalphobe. Potty break is always a good one, even if you don't have to go. Blame it on your bladder and not your nerves. However, I recently asked if I could take a five minute walk in between procedures that were happening on the same day. It popped out of my mouth without much forethought, and when she said sure, and then I did it, IT WAS SO AWESOME!!!! It was like sneaking off campus for lunch in high school, and moving my whole body allowed me to have a cleanish slate for procedure two. Part of me wants to get through appointments as quickly as possible, but there is a real benefit in slowing down where you can.
Know Your Goal
Midway through last year's dental odyssey, I started getting really discouraged that I was still such a mess every time I went. It felt like things were getting worse instead of better. When I reflected on why this was, I realized that I had been acting as if, "Make the dentist's job easier," was my number one goal in all of this. Of course this wasn't my goal, but it's what I defaulted to in lieu of an intentional goal. So what was actually true for me? For me, my first goal in cleaning up my dental neglect was not to abandon myself in this area anymore. My second goal was to have better oral health, and only fifth or sixth on the list was to make it easier for the dentist to do her job.
This took an ENORMOUS weight off, because it allowed me to accept the fact that I may always be afraid of the dentist. I can be a mess in the office, and still be successful in meeting my main goals. It may sound strange to think about your goals for something that everyone is just expected to do, but whatever your goals are, thinking them through gives you a chance to take the spotlight off of your fears.
In December of last year, something incredible happened. As I left my 11th procedure of the year, I called over my shoulder to the receptionist, "This is my eleventh visit Gloria, that means that my next one is free, right?" Everyone giggled, and I left and walked out into the sunshine. I paused right outside the door. Had I ever made a joke at the dentist? If I had, I couldn't remember. But here I was, enough energy leftover after a visit to make a dumb joke. I smiled all the way home. At least I think I smiled, the whole right side of my face was numb.
About the Creator
Life is weird, write about it, paint about it, dance about it, and sing about it too. Use every language in your arsenal to sculpt the world you want to live in. Writer, educator, artist, and creative midwife--this is what I do.