How I'm Overcoming Panic Attacks at the Dentist
A process for working through unpleasant feelings
Most of my life I have felt some shame around going to the dentist. When I was younger, I did not take stellar care of my teeth, and had way too many cavities. Every 6 months was bad news for me when the dentist would tell my mom the cavity count this time.
And that became expensive! My parents told me that if I couldn’t take better care of my teeth, I would have to start paying for my own cavities, which seemed like an insurmountable expense to me.
So dentist visits came to be filled with the fear of getting in trouble, shame for being “bad,” and of course the consequence of being bad: pain. No wonder it was my least favorite place to go.
As an adult I did start taking stellar care of my teeth. Brush twice a day, with Sensodyne, soft bristle, not too hard but not too soft, waterpik, floss, fluoride wash, no sticky candy, sugar-free gum after meals, regular dentist visits, religiously use my mouth guard at night, etc.
That all worked, somewhat. Unfortunately, one Friday afternoon I woke up from a nap with a splitting toothache. In all my dental issues, I’d never had a toothache before.
Hint: hold an ice pack against the affected side of your mouth. It will slow the infection until you can get to a dentist, hopefully ASAP.
Thankfully I was able to be seen the next day. It turns out that my very diligent following of outdated rules for my night guard resulted in a serious problem.
Diagnosis: chronic tooth infection. Solution: root canal + crown
Oh, also you have 5 cavities that need attention.
Pain, fear, and some shame crept in. Coupled with the surprise of needing an emergency root canal (even after following all the rules!) led to a panic attack in the dentist chair that day.
Through tears, clammy skin, and some hyperventilating, I had to have my husband come in and hold my hand so I could calm down enough for the anesthesia shot.
And that was just the first of seven visits.
In the days leading up to the next visits, I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t handle weeks more of stomach-churning anxiety. And I really didn’t want to be known as the patient who cries at the dentist office.
So I began an inner dialogue, asking myself “What am I feeling? What’s going on?”
Inner me: We’re afraid! Dentists are scary! We don’t want to go!”
Me: But we have to go or we’ll have worse problems. What are we afraid of?
Inner me: Pain!
Me: Why pain? What am I afraid that pain means?
Inner me: Pain is bad. Pain is dangerous.
Me: Ok let’s tackle each part. Why does it mean danger? What are you trying to protect me from?
Inner me: Pain is dangerous because it hurts you. We want to avoid getting hurt.
Me: That’s true, and that makes sense. Pain does hurt. But the dentist is providing a luxury health benefit, not attacking or violating me. This kind of pain is not dangerous. (And we can always ask them for extra numbing gel if we need it!)
Inner me: Oh yeah, ok so it’s not dangerous. But it’s still bad.
Me: What does bad mean here?
Inner me: If we’re getting cavities filled, it means we’ve done something bad. We are bad.
Me: Ah yes, I remember that feeling. You’re right, it does feel like we’re bad. But in this case we know we have soft teeth. We know we did everything our last dentist told us. We followed all the rules. And yet, the rules failed us. Sometimes things just happen. We couldn’t really have known. We don’t have to feel bad about this.
Inner me: Oh. Wow. So if the pain doesn’t mean Danger, and it doesn’t mean Bad, is it really still pain? It’s just sensations at this point.
Me: Yes! We can feel the sensations, acknowledge that they are unpleasant and will finish soon. And if it’s really unpleasant we can ask them to adjust!
And would you believe it, that was the trick! Processing the feelings helped resolve the feelings. I was able to get the rest of my teeth taken care of without my husband to hold my hand, without hyperventilating or tears, and without days of stomach-churning anxiety leading up to the appointments.
Now, some visits I was still scared. The dentist would “hmm” to himself and I was afraid what they might mean. The drill would keep going and going and it would feel like it would never end. But instead of letting myself run away with the fear, I repeated to myself:
this is a luxury service to help me feel better long term
this is not shameful
I can tell them if we need to add more numbing gel
Once I believed those truths, I could stop fighting against and trying to prevent the pain. I became able to just accept the sensations as they came.
Yes, the sensations are unpleasant. No, they will not last forever.
TLDR - Working through unpleasant feelings
Understand your feelings
For me it was Shame and Pain
Break down your reasons for each feeling
Ask yourself why you’re feeling this way
Don’t let yourself feel shame about the answer
Discuss the feeling with yourself
Come up with some truths to remember in the moment
Whenever the fear pops up, remind yourself of the truths you now believe
Eventually this will become second nature!
Impressive! A good exercise of asking: what's the story that Part of me is telling my Self?