I have a dental phobia. When I think about the prospect of going to the dentist, my knees get weak, trickles of cold sweat accumulate on the back of my neck and I feel lightheaded.
There’s good reason for this. I grew up in a post-Communist country where empathy wasn’t exactly a dentist’s strong suit. For much of my childhood, I had dental work done without anesthesia. I remember once passing out in the chair during a procedure. When I came to, the dentist was still drilling away.
This year, my resolution was to address my dental phobia. In preparation, I decided to read up on phobias. Why do we have them? Can they be conquered? How?
The first thing I encountered in every definition of phobia was the word irrational: A phobia is an excessive and irrational fear. My particular phobia has a name, dentophobia, and unsurprisingly, it stems from traumatic early experience. However, not all phobias do. Some stem from evolutionary wiring — that is, we fear spiders and snakes because we’re conditioned, for self preservation, to see them as dangerous and potentially venomous. According to a study, phobias can even be passed on from parents to children.
The second thing that surprised me is that phobias, which are considered an anxiety disorder, are actually quite common: 19 million people in the US currently have one. It’s not always fear of specific things like bugs, dentists or heights. Social phobia, also known as social anxiety, is an intense fear of being humiliated in social situations. This can be so overwhelming that sufferers may resort to not going out in public altogether.
To treat phobias, most sources recommend exposure therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which exposes you to your fear in a controlled setting. Since I can’t afford both a dentist and a therapist, I decided to triage my needs — go for the dentist first, and see if I could “heal” myself of my phobia.
I realized the first step would be to give myself the illusion of certainty and control. This meant that I basically looked into every single dentist licensed to practice in New York City, read all of their reviews and finally settled on one.
I made the appointment and showed up on the scheduled day feeling kind of brave — but apparently not that brave, because I still had to bring my husband to hold my hand. I had given myself prior permission to wuss out: if I felt overwhelmed, I could always leave. I ended up only getting an X-ray of my teeth. The news wasn’t very good: I needed fillings, two root canals and to remove my wisdom teeth. I left the office feeling deflated; I wasn’t sure I had it in me to sustain the gumption I’d had on the very first day on subsequent visits.
Leading up to the procedures, the most successful tool I found to distance my phobia was to arm myself to the teeth (had to do it) with information. This did not mean reading online message boards filled with horror stories, but rather gathering information about the procedures and what to expect. I also found it helpful to establish trust with my dentist. When it was confirmed that the interventions she suggested were merited (a lot of dentists will suggest work you don’t need because it makes them money), I felt much more secure.
I finally made the second appointment. The days leading up to it were torturous. I don’t think I thought about anything but the dentist. I sent myself into panic mode with visions of the worst case scenario: What if, while the dentist was drilling in my tooth, I felt a sudden jolt of pain and reacted by clamping my jaw shut, therefore sending the sharp drill right into my brain, causing a massive cerebral hemorrhage and killing me on the spot. “Here lies Helena. She died while getting a filling,” my lonely tombstone would read.
I convinced myself of phantom pains and flossed like a maniac. I put together a playlist on Spotify and splurged on a subscription, lest any maddening commercials start playing during my procedure. Finally, Friday arrived. At the office, I buried my nose in a book and proceeded to read the same sentence over and over again until my name was called. Once in the dentist’s chair, I put my headphones on, closed my eyes and waited for the pain.
Excluding a tiny pinprick from the anesthesia needle, it never came. I left the dentist’s that day with a lopsided grin and three newly healthy teeth. It’s been several days since that last appointment, and I have two upcoming ones that I feel apprehensive about — but in a good way. It’s almost as if I want to hurry up and fix everything before I wake up, phobic again.
What I learned from my personal experience with phobia is I’d made a mountain out of a molehill. I’d allowed a hazy and traumatic recollection color my view well into adulthood, and in the process, managed to sabotage my dental health. Knowing I was putting myself at risk and begrudging the irrationality of my phobia only made me want to avoid the issue more.
Getting clear information from a trustworthy source helped me address it. I know that not everyone can afford to consult several dentists or get therapy. The key, for me, was to ease myself, incrementally, into a place of comfort. I brought a buddy along and didn’t care that I looked silly. I dressed up for the occasion (more irrational thinking: “dentists wouldn’t hurt someone wearing such a cute outfit”) and gave myself something to look forward to: a hair appointment the Tuesday after (“nothing bad can happen to me because I have places to be”).
I don’t think I’ll ever be fully comfortable with the dentist. But the past couple of weeks have helped me realize the awesome power fear holds over the human brain. It can completely ruin your life if you allow it. It can convince you that you’re feeling pain when you’re not, it can make your heart beat faster at rest and it can give you almost superhuman strength. Most importantly, it can stop you from enjoying your time here. Think of what you can accomplish by rerouting that energy into working through your phobia instead of rearranging your life around it. Believe me, it’s only as scary as you convince yourself it’ll be.
Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Photos by Group 1 International Distribution Organization Ltd. via Getty images and Vogue Runway; collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.