I haven’t always been scared of dentists. When I was younger and living in Manchester in the UK, we had an excellent family dentist who was very good at making you feel relaxed. Besides, I was just a kid back then and kids just seem to take each day as it comes don’t they? I don’t know about you, but there are lots of things that didn’t bother me as a kid growing up, but now as an adult make me feel much more uncomfortable. Fairground rides and heights are two that I can think of. But my biggest fear as an adult most definitely is going to the dentist. I am much better than I was (more about that later) but I still get nervous.
I do feel that my fear is justified. It is not an irrational fear. I can even pinpoint the start of it to one bad experience from my past. I’m going to give you my story of how I became so scared of dentists and then how I overcame that fear with a few tips of how to do the same.
It started with a sandwich
The year was 1999 and I was living in the city of Orléans, France. I had recently moved there with my French girlfriend at the time. It was lunchtime at work and I was at my desk chomping on a sandwich made with a baguette when I suddenly felt a tooth crack. It was a molar on the bottom jaw, right side. I spat out a bit of baguette and found a small piece of tooth lying there. Strangely enough, it didn’t hurt at all so I figured the nerve was still protected and it was just a small bit of tooth that had come away. Not too serious, I thought. Well, I was wrong.
A few seconds later, the pain started. But not in my chipped tooth. – No, the pain was coming from my tongue! The chipped tooth had left a jagged top edge that was cutting my tongue to shreds. Every time I swallowed, my tongue brushed against the rough edge of the tooth and cut it even more. It was bleeding heavily and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Every time I swallowed (several times a minute), the tooth cut into the tongue a bit deeper and the bleeding got worse. I grabbed the Yellow Pages phone directory and started calling local dentists. After about 30 minutes of trying, I got through to one, a young lady, whose office was very close to where I lived in the city centre and I got an appointment for 3pm later that day.
The worst dentist’s appointment of my life
I got there at about 2:50pm, pressed the intercom button at street level and waited. After about 20 seconds there was no answer so I rang again. No answer. I tried one last time and this time, there was a loud buzzing noise and the front door to the apartment building opened automatically. I went in and up the stairs to the 2nd floor where I was surprised to see the apartment door already open. I went in and closed the door behind me. I was in a small entrance area. The door to the treatment room was to the left and closed and I could hear the noises of dental treatment going on behind the door. The door to the waiting room was straight ahead and open and I could see several people sitting down. I looked around for a receptionist but found nobody. She must be in the treatment room, I thought. I entered the waiting room and sat down. There were 3 other people in there. I grabbed a magazine and started reading. 1 hour later, I was still there waiting. I can understand that some appointments can run a bit late but this was ridiculous.
At last, after about an hour and a half of waiting, the dentist appeared at the door and ushered me in. She looked quite young, probably late twenties. No apology or even a mention about the wait. The treatment room did not look at all like a medical treatment room. It was a very large room with wooden floors and high ceilings. There were book shelves, a couch and a desk in one corner. Then right in the middle was the dreaded dentists chair. “OMG”, I thought to myself. “This is her living room!” And that’s exactly what it was – It was her living room which just happened to have a dentist’s chair in the middle of it. The dentist’s chair, light and a small tray of instruments were the only medical equipment in there. It felt like something out of a horror movie. She told me to sit in the chair. I very nearly just turned around and walked out. With hindsight, I wish I had.
I sat in the chair, opened my mouth and pointed to the chipped tooth. Without saying anything, she got to work. To say I was not feeling at ease is an understatement. She didn’t even explain what she was going to do to fix the chipped tooth. Anyway, she was tinkering around inside my mouth and I was watching her face closely to read her body language. She was continuously furrowing her brow, looking confused and frustrated and even letting out deep sighs of annoyance. Let’s just say she wasn’t filling me with confidence. She was also seriously hurting me. I pointed out to her as best I could that she hadn’t given me an anaesthetic to which she snapped back “You don’t need an anaesthetic for this!” Wow, ok.
She continued working on the tooth with an instrument in both hands and it was getting more and more painful. I was just about to shriek out in pain when all of a sudden, a loud telephone started ringing and ringing and ringing. It was her landline. Instead of letting her receptionist pick up the phone, she got up, let go of the instruments in my mouth, walked over to her desk to answer the phone! I kid you not. Right in the middle of treating a patient, she takes a phone call. I was lying there in pain, mouth wide open with 2 metal instruments sticking out of my mouth while she is chatting on the phone.
I’m fluent in French so could understand her side of the conversation. – She was talking to another patient on the phone and giving him / her an appointment. Then it all made sense. She doesn’t even have a receptionist or assistant. She is doing everything herself. That was why I had to wait so long when I rang the intercom – She was in the middle of treating another patient at the time! Every time her phone or door rings, she has to interrupt the patients’ treatment and answers it herself. As soon as I realised that, I just wanted to get out of there and never go back. She finished her phone-call, came back, picked up her instruments and carried on tinkering away as though nothing had happened without even an apology. Now I was annoyed.
I told her very firmly she was hurting me. She let out another deep sigh, grabbed a different instrument and quickly patched up the tooth with something. She then got up and said “Finished.” When I questioned her, she said the tooth is fixed and there is no need for another appointment. I sensed she was fobbing me off but I was just glad to get out of there. I grabbed my coat, quickly paid her and left, promising myself never to return. Now, thinking back to this dentist – She was young and inexperienced and she shouldn’t have been working for herself if she couldn’t afford to invest in the proper equipment or a receptionist to take her calls.
It just gets worse
A week later, in the work canteen, I was chewing on a steak and whatever she had patched my tooth up with fell out and on to my plate. This time, it did hurt. I got up immediately from the table and drove home. From home, I called some work colleagues and got a recommendation for a good dentist. I called him and he agreed to see me later that day.
He turned out to be a very good dentist. He was in his late fifties, had a proper dental practice with the full range of medical equipment and had a proper reception with assistant who answered the phones. He was much more confident in his actions. You could just sense that he was very competent. However, the problem was that by this point, I was pretty traumatized following my previous bad experience. I would tense up in the chair before he did something and he would just mock my fear. He was a good dentist but he was all business. He had no interest in taking the time to talk to me to calm me down.
Anyway, he told me that the previous dentist had done a pretty bad job by patching up the tooth with a flimsy composite. It required a crown, not a composite and that meant getting a root canal first. The treatment was done over several weeks. The root canal involves basically removing the fleshy insides of a tooth including the nerve itself. I didn’t feel much pain because that part was done under local anaesthetic. However, for the 2 appointments after the root canal, he refused to give me a local anaesthetic because, in his words “there is no longer a nerve in the tooth so you can’t feel anything!” Erm, well actually I can feel something and it hurts.
What should have been the last appointment with him was to fit the crown. Unfortunately it wasn’t the right size despite him trying to ram it down regardless (ouch). So the crown had to be returned to the person who had made it and I had to go back for a final appointment. A week later, the final crown was fitted. The crown itself was a good one and he did a very good at fitting it. I still have it today over 20 years later. He was a good dentist but just not a very nice person, unfortunately. He did become my regular dentist after that.
Once I had got my crown, I thought it was done. But oh no. A few months later, in 2000, I got pain in my gums and jaw. So I went back to dentist to see what was going on. After getting the crown, my teeth had moved slightly and caused the gum to ripple up and form like a loose flap at the back of my mouth. This made it hard to clean teeth and so bacteria had gathered and caused infection. He gave me a prescription for anti-biotics which cleared it up. When I went back, he said that if it happens again, he’d have to take out one of my wisdom teeth to make room. Oh no, I could feel myself panicking again. I hoped it wouldn’t happen again.
Moved to the south of France
In 2001, we left the city of Orléans and moved to the south of France, to the beautiful city of Montpellier. Six months after moving, my gum got infected again. I found a dentist through a recommendation. This was another disaster. The waiting room was empty and there was no receptionist! Cue flashbacks to Orleans. (Why was someone recommending this dentist to me?!) When I went in there, the female dentist seemed more interested in asking all about my personal life than treating me. – This is very common as an expat but I digress. I explained my problem and she said the same thing as the last dentist. – She can give me anti-biotics but if it happens again, she would have to take the wisdom tooth out. I nodded in agreement, knowing full well I had zero intentions of ever coming back to her again. I took prescription and left and never went back.
This happened 3 or 4 times over the next few years. My gum got infected, I went to a new dentist to get anti-biotics while promising to get the wisdom tooth removed if it happened again. My fear of dentists was just too much for me to agree to getting a tooth extracted. Anti-biotics was a much more appealing solution.
The final straw
Fast forward to 2008. The gum got infected again. This time, it happened on a Saturday. Knowing that most dentists were shut, I figured that if I brush my teeth extra well, I’d nip it in the bud. Nope, that didn’t work. The next day, Sunday, I was in a lot of pain but all dentists are now closed and all pharmacies are closed except emergency pharmacies. So I had to look on the internet to find which one pharmacy was open in the whole city. I went there and predictably there was a huge queue of people waiting to be served. When I got to the counter I had to really beg the pharmacist to give me anti-biotics without a prescription.
She took pity on me and gave me a course of antibiotics and she wrote down the dosage. (2 a day for 5 days) After 5 days, I was still in pain. Panic! This was the final straw for me. I had to get this health issue solved once and for all. So I researched dentists yet again and this time I found one outside of the city centre. He was really nice with a big friendly smile. Probably in his late thirties and he had a proper reception with an equally-friendly receptionist – Yay! He gave me a full mouth x-ray and took the time to explain everything to me. It turned out that the anti-biotics from the pharmacy were the correct ones but the dose was too weak. He gave me another prescription of anti-biotics with stronger dose and strongly advised me to get the tooth out as soon as the infection clears. This time, I relented. I had found my dentist. I couldn’t go on like that. Taking Anti-biotics all the time is not good for you. What would I have done if I had been in a foreign country with pain? I had to be brave and take the proper long-term solution.
I had to get rid of the gum infection before having the wisdom tooth out. He gave me the prescription for the anti-biotics and a second appointment to check the infection was cleared and and then a third appointment 2 weeks later on a Saturday morning to at last have the wisdom tooth extracted. After the anti-biotics had worked and infection was gone, I was very tempted to just chicken out and cancel the appointment for the extraction. But I remained strong and went through with it. So 8 years after the first gum infection, I was finally going to get the treatment it required.
It’s important to point out that this was not the first time I had had a tooth removed by a dentist. – I had had teeth removed before in the UK when I was a teenager to make room for other teeth. However, those extractions were done under general anesthetic(gas). That wasn’t pleasant but the advantage is that you’re not awake for the whole procedure. So for this extraction in France, I was expecting it also to be done under anaesthetic. However, the French informed me that general anaesthetic can only be given in hospitals by a qualified anaesthetic due to the risk of not waking up. Hearing that didn’t do much to calm me down! So this extraction was going to be my first one fully awake with just a local anaesthetic.
It was a Saturday morning. A friend drove me there. Luckily there was nobody else in the waiting room so I could panic all by myself. After 10 minutes of waiting, the dentist appeared with a big smile, shook my (trembling) hand and led me into the treatment room. I think he could see the fear in my eyes as soon as he saw me so he knew what was up. There was another younger dentist already in the room which threw me off guard a bit. He introduced himself and told me he was a trainee. I of course panicked but I was then reassured that he was only there to watch.
The next few minutes were a blur. My chest was pounding and I was having cold shivers and pretty sure I was asking lots of questions. I can just remember the dentist saying “Monsieur, you have to calm down, you are having a panic attack.” He then went on to talk about football to me and his trainee. – He had chatted to me about English football during our first appointment and he must have noted it down in my file as a possible subject of conversation. It worked and he did succeed in calming me down. I just wanted to get it done with so I encouraged him to start.
He gave me the injection for the local anesthetic – It really felt very numb – much more than just for a filling or crown – I’m guessing he gave me an extra strong dose! He was talking during this time and proving that I couldn’t feel anything by prodding my gums and teeth and saying “See you can’t feel anything?” Then, he went in with another instrument, I knew what was coming – I closed my eyes and then heard and felt my wisdom tooth being struck. I most certainly felt THAT and I told the dentist so. To which he replied “That is normal you felt that. But the worst is now over.” He then grabbed some pliers and pulled the tooth out. And I have to say, the pulling part didn’t hurt at all as the tooth had already been loosened.
He then took great delight in telling me it was all over by saying “Monsieur, look! look! Open your eyes!” I opened them to see him dangling my bloodied tooth right in front of me. I closed my eyes immediately and gave him a thumbs up which was my way of saying “Ok, I get it. Thanks very much but please, I don’t need to see it!” So to sum up, the procedure itself, there is only about 15 seconds of physical pain. It went very well, all things considered. He really is a very good dentist.
The hours after the procedure were probably more painful than the procedure itself as the anaesthetic wore off. He had given me a prescription for some painkillers and they were very effective. They were so powerful that I actually did a google search for their name (Tramadol) to see if anyone else had felt really woozy after taking them. That was where I found stories of people being addicted to them. That made sense because they were really strong. I really didn’t want to get hooked on prescription drugs so I only took them when I felt in a lot of pain.
A happy ending
About a week later, the pain was gone. I had done it. The gum healed gradually over the next weeks and the “flap” of gum that had caused all those infections was no longer there. I have had no more gum infections since. Now looking back, I feel very stupid because I suffered for 8 whole years with gum infections and endless prescriptions for anti-biotics because I was too scared to have a wisdom tooth extracted – A procedure which took less than 20 minutes and only about 20 seconds of that was physical pain.
In my mind, having crowns and having a tooth taken out are pretty big procedures and I came through them absolutely fine once I had found a good dentist. Now that I know dental treatment by a good dentist isn’t that bad, it has helped me overcome my fear. I do still get a bit nervous going to my dentist but I am much better.
In light of my experience of fearing dentists and my story, I have come up with some tips and advice for other people who are going through the same thing.
My tips to overcome fear of dentists
Shorten the duration of fear
This is advice I learned in the excellent book “The 10X rule” by Grant Cardone. When we fear something, we usually do what we can to avoid the situation for as long as possible. In my case, I avoided getting a tooth removed for 8 years! The problem with doing that is that the longer you avoid doing something out of fear, the bigger that fear becomes. The bigger your fear becomes, the more likely you are to keep procrastinating on it and you’re in a vicious circle of increasing fear and avoidance. At that point, it’s no longer a rational fear of the dentist (or whatever else you’re scared of), but a fear of fear itself. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets and it eventually becomes chronic anxiety which is a much serious mental health problem.
So the solution is to shorten the duration of your fear as soon as you can. That means as soon as you have a toothache and you know deep down you need to see a dentist, just pick up the phone immediately and make an appointment. Try to get an appointment as soon as possible and get an appointment in the morning if you can. But the earliest date is the most important thing. Do not overthink it. Do not give your mind time to fester. Making the appointment commits you to going. Then keep busy for the days leading up to the appointment. On the day of the appointment, time your journey so that you arrive on time but not too long in advance. The goal is to have just 5-10 minutes in the waiting room. That is the optimal amount of time to calm yourself but not too long for you to get stressed out.
By getting your appointment asap, your mind won’t have time to get out of control fear. You will have the appointment and after it, as you get off that dentist’s chair you’ll be thinking “Oh that wasn’t all that bad!” – It’s essential you save that feeling into your memory so that you associate the thought of dentists with a positive feeling. You must remember that feeling of “That wasn’t too bad” the next time you have to go to the dentists. By doing that each time, you’ll quickly feel less nervous about it.
As mentioned above, this “reduce the fear duration” advice is explained in the “The 10X rule” book. It’s an excellent book for becoming more productive and achieving your goals. You can read my review of the book here: “The 10X rule” book review. The chapter about fear can be applied to lots of areas of your life. I have applied it not only to my fear of dentists, but also to other areas of my life like a “fear” (dread) of tackling tough tasks in my business. The book has helped me a lot with overcoming procrastination.
Understand that a small fear of dentists is normal
Nobody likes going to the dentist. It’s not a particularly pleasant experience having someone tinkering around in your mouth. Realising that it’s normal to be nervous helps keeping the nerves as just nerves and stops them blowing up into a panic attack. What used to happen to me was that I’d feel nervous and then those nerves would manifest themselves as feeling sick. Then I’d worry that I was going to be sick in the waiting room or whatever. The fear of the dentist had become a fear of being sick and a fear of the fear itself. Now, as soon as I start to feel nervous about it, I don’t try to fight it. I just say to myself: “I’m a bit nervous but that’s perfectly normal. Everyone gets nervous.” – That helps me to stay in control.
Be careful of recommendations for dentists
Many of the dentists who were recommended to me were recommended to me by people who are not scared of going to the dentist. Unfortunately, you cannot be sure what those dentists will be like when confronted with a scared patient. My second dentist in Orléans (the one who did the root canal and crown) was recommended to me by people I work with. True, he was an excellent dentist in terms of technical skills but very bad in terms of people skills.
My excellent dentist (who took out the wisdom tooth) is not only very skilled but he also takes the time at the beginning of an appointment to smile, shake my hand, to chat to me and to calm me down. It only takes a few extra minutes but it makes such a difference. I told him straight up during our first appointment about my fear and he has taken that into account ever since. I suggest you do the same. Good luck 🙂
What about you? Have you had any bad experiences with a dentist? What tips do you have to overcome your fear? Let me know in the comments section below. 🙂