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I write with no particular theme in mind, because I am random like that.

Jun
05 2016

Why I am so anxious about dentists

I wrote a post about how IV sedation benefited me during a dental procedure back in 2010, which subsequently led to several emails from fellow dental anxiety sufferers wanting to know more. Thank you guys for writing in, and I hope you managed to get your dental woes sorted out sans the anxiety! I guess this will be a sequel. Kind of.

Warning – super long post ahead!

I hate sequels, especially of the dental drama variety. Holiday sequels, family comedy sequels, “funny moments in the office” sequels, yeap bring them on. But medical sequels (too much of them) and dental sequels can well stay out of my way. But that’s life – full of ups and downs.

Unfortunately, a filling on my right upper molar failed miserably. I currently have pain on chewing, and considering the depth of the cavity, I opted to do an elective root canal treatment with the blessings of my current dentist. (And another crown thereafter. Yes, another.)

And of course, with me being all jittery about dental procedures, I opted to be sedated once again.

With my medical history being too complex now, my dentist didn’t feel too comfortable doing the root canal himself. So he referred me to an endodontic specialist whom I saw for the first time last week.

The endodontist was a really nice guy, and I really enjoyed chatting with him. And me being me, I flooded him with loads of questions. But not once did he show any sign of irritation. It was only when he wanted to do an “ice test” (putting a cold object on my tooth to test the level of nerve sensitivity) on my tooth did I freak out. It was then followed by my howls of “ohmygosh, so embarassing!” thereafter, with the endodontist and his assistant smiling reassuringly at me.

He then asked me why was I so anxious about dental work and where my dental anxiety originated from. Not the first dentist to ever ask me this question. To be honest, I never really thought about it, and my responses to previous dentists had always been a shrug. I only knew that yeah, I get anxious about dental work.

I thought about it a little on the spot, but was only able to vaguely trace it to my experience with my primary school dentist.

My response to him? “Because my primary school dentist was a prick.”

He could barely hold back his chuckle.


But heading home and thinking more about it, all the pieces fell into place. I recall two dental nurses in my primary school (CHIJ Katong Primary), and how I always saw them as monsters. They used fear to “encourage” us to brush our teeth, on top of several other experiences I’d elaborate on later.

Sidetrack; For the record, I really take care of my teeth right now, spending up to 10 minutes just brushing, flossing and gargling with mouthwash, multiply that by 2 times a day. (Not because of my school dentist’s “fear encouragement”, but the habit stuck after I got braces when I was 13.)

But I got unlucky due to several factors – the natural structure of my bottom teeth (deep grooves which tend to trap food, where your toothbrush just cannot reach no matter how hard you try) and the fact that I wore my braces for way too long, which screwed both my upper molars.

Back to my primary school dentists.

They never liked my anxiety. In fact, they laughed at me about it, and told all my classmates about me. They go “see that Brenda? Such a big girl, but so scared of dentists. Don’t be like her!”

And when I get scared out of my wits on their chair, I always got rebuked, scolded or what-have-you.

My fear of dentists only grew, and I also grew up thinking that being anxious about dentists was something to be ashamed about.

I still vividly remember an experience in primary 4, when I was called to the dental office while I had a loose milk tooth. I pointed out the loose tooth to the dental nurse and told her to please don’t touch it, it’s loose but I want it to fall out naturally. She shrugged, said okay, and proceeded to polish my teeth for me. I flinched everytime she went near the tooth and she’d get irritated. She barked at me several times, saying “okayyy, I won’t touch that tooth! Can you stop moving?”

She completed her polishing and I heaved a sigh of relief. But the next thing I knew, she grabbed a surgical gauze, wrapped the tooth with it and yanked it out.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.
(Obviously, I was a primary 4 kid back then and didn’t actually say that. But that is my response now as I recollected the experience and typed it out.)

As if my fear of dentists wasn’t big enough. Now, it’s trust gone. Like, completely. KABOOM.

At that point, my impression of dentists as a primary school kid evolved from “scary and nasty people” into “scary and nasty people who pull all your teeth out against your own will”.

When I got called in again in Primary 5, I just sat in her chair and bawled my eyes out. I completely refused to open my mouth. She got frustrated. “What is there to be afraid about? You are Primary 5 but behave like a Primary 1 kid,” she yelled. Then, she pointed out my classmate quietly sitting in the next dental chair and went “See that XXX? She’s such a good girl. Not like you, such a naughty girl.”

Apparently, being scared of dentists meant I was naughty. Hoo, boy. Okay lor. Whatever lor.

Eventually, she sent me back to my class after having done nothing. Of course, I wouldn’t let her. I no longer trusted her.

Got called back again in Primary 6. As if the dental nurse wanted her revenge for all the “trouble” I gave them during my time in Primary School, she thought it’d be a great idea to clean my teeth with the probe and wipe all the food particles on my tongue. (Normally, dentists wipe it on a gauze. But she purposely did this to keep me silent.) But the particles accumulated, some rolled back into my throat and I started to gag. Then, I got scolded for coughing.

Now you know why I grew up thinking all dentists are monsters.

I graduated from primary school and met some really nice dentists thereafter when I was about to get my braces. (My parents insisted on me wearing braces, by the way. No way did I make that decision myself when I wouldn’t even want to get within a ten foot pole’s distance of a dentist back then.)

Obviously, all the appointments leading up to me getting my braces still involved a lot of crying and screaming and occasionally, kicking. But it soon simmered down by a lot as I saw them more often for braces tightening/cleaning and such. (And of course, because they were nice.)

I no longer see dentists as monsters. In fact, I remain friends with my previous dentists (after primary school, of course) and see my existing ones as my allies. I’m actually able to sit still for simple cleaning, and perhaps simple repairs such as fillings. But my threshold stops there. Anything more than that, I’ll opt to be sedated.

Why?

I still get pre-appointment jitters. It’s like a physiological reflex now. Even when I know the actual appointment is harmless, the autonomic portion of my brain refuses to listen. When I know I have a dental appointment upcoming, I start to get panicky. Even if the appointment is 2 months away, I will be on edge for the full next 2 months.

Seriously, nothing gets me on the edge of my seat like a dental appointment. My heart rate goes up and I get really angsty. And as the appointment draws nearer (even if it’s just for cleaning), my ability to think about anything else except the appointment drops exponentially. The exponential effect of that drop is even higher if it’s something more major than a filling.

Just can’t help it.

Another sidetrack; I had 6 appointments with various dentists in the past 1 month alone. I’m amazed I haven’t actually had a stroke yet.

And minutes before the appointment? You’d probably find me running off to the toilet because I seriously need to take a shit.

If you need an instant cure for constipation, there you have it.

Yes, you have the permission to laugh. As loud as you want.

That’s my story about my dental anxiety, displayed out here for the whole world to see.

And am I embarassed about it now? No. Because dental anxiety affects anyone, no matter how old you are. People have phobias. Some have a fear of heights. Some have a fear of spiders. Some have a fear of cockroaches. I have them all AND a phobia of dentists.

And you know what? It’s nothing to be embarassed about. If a dentist makes you feel bad about your dental anxiety and makes you feel foolish about it, drop that dentist like a hot potato. Thankfully, most dentists I’ve met since leaving primary school have been nothing short of pleasant.

Learning about the sedation option really helped a lot. It eliminated all the ‘pre-appointment’ and ‘during-appointment’ anxiety for me. My root canal is scheduled for 30th June (with sedation) and here I am, not thinking much about it. And considering that most of my anxiety is from situational awareness, knowing that I’ll be in a daze throughout the procedure also helps a lot.

I used to be the kid that avoids dentists like the plaque. (Haha, punny.) Now, I know it’s important get dental work done to prevent further problems next time. And I keep to my appointments. It’s just that sometimes I’ll opt to be sedated. But that’s already a huge improvement for me.

To those who tell me to “not be such a pussy”. Well, at least pussies are cute, I don’t mind being one.

Long, long, long post. I salute you if you read this far!

And fellow dental phobics, do share your stories with me too, whether it’s through the comments or email.

Okaybai!

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2 Comments

  • 06 Jun 2016
    8:16 AM

    Vickie

    Don’t have any dental horror stories to share because despite my abysmal dental habits as a kid, I’ve been blessed with good genes for strong teeth (touch wood) and high pain tolerance. People do really tend to underestimate the long-lasting effects of negative childhood experiences, though. Good to hear that you’ve figured out the root (eheheh) cause of the anxiety. I for one absolutely empathise with you.

    • 31 Aug 2016
      12:24 PM

      brendalogy

      How I wish I had your genes! I’ve been taking really good care of mine but problems keep arising. I’ve a number of friends who have good genes too and I keep feeling I lost the gene pool lottery on this one. :P

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