Learning to challenge your fear of the dentist
In October 2015 I attended The Speakmans How To Be Happy event in Nottingham. I attended to see if I could cure my fear of the dentist and fear of flying phobias. A week later I managed to get on an aeroplane with no medication, something I hadn’t been able to do for years!
Six months later I attended my dentist. I would usually start feeling anxious months before, but this time it was different. I recalled everything I had learnt at the event and managed to stay positive through every stage.
Before you can begin to treat and challenge any phobia, you have to understand how it got there in the first place. Here is how I began to deal with my fear of the dentist.
What I learnt from The Speakmans about dentophobia
The Speakmans have a mountain of knowledge, which has come from years of working with people all over the world with all sorts of different issues. One of the first things I picked up on was, with any fear or phobia it is not something we are born with, it is learnt, copied or reacted behaviour. The only fear we are born with is the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling.
With this in mind, I asked myself, when was this fear of the dentist first created? The Speakmans have their own name for these memories and they call them schemas. I recall being at my old dentist who was coming up to retirement in a few weeks. I remember part of my tooth had fallen out and that he had said he didn’t need to give me any local anaesthetic to drill my tooth! What! It was at this point when he came at me with the drill that my fight, flight or freeze mechanism kicked in. I felt hot and panicked, and just remember the feeling of choking as he tried to access my mouth with the drill.
As you can imagine, this was not pleasant.
A few weeks later I was in the recording studio at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts recording some new tracks with my band. During one of the late night sessions, I remember eating a Twix, biting down on it and feeling the filling that he had worked on a few weeks earlier, fall out. My immediate thought of going back to the dentist scared me to death and I spent the next few nights at the recording studio drinking to soften the anxiety.
The feeling of anxiety was now connected to a thought, a schema. This would now build upon itself over the years constantly making the thought of anything associated with the dentist worse.
Don’t blame the dentist
There was a significant point during The Speakmans event when Nik Speakman asked me a series of questions, and something clicked. He said, “DON’T BLAME THE DENTIST”
This might sound silly, but what he did was to take me back to the time when the incident happened and asked me why I was blaming my new dentist because of what my old dentist did. This was so interesting. When you get a feeling of anxiety you don’t think rationally and so I decided to ask myself, why am I blaming my new dentist? Even though I wasn’t consciously blaming him, subconsciously I was letting the feelings that had been created from the old dentist affect the way I felt about the new dentist. I realised this was massively unfair as my new dentist is amazing. I have had him for some years now and he has always made me feel reassured and has never done anything I didn’t want him to do.
Throughout their event, there were some key points that helped me start to look at my fear of the dentist differently. In particular were these two statements, HOW YOU THINK IS HOW YOU FEEL and SEE IT FOR WHAT IT IS NOT HOW IT FEELS.
How you think is how you feel
Try this; imagine that you are in an old style school classroom, you are alone and it is very quiet. A female teacher with long nails then enters the room and walks over to the old-fashioned blackboard. She then reaches up to the top of the blackboard and begins to slowly scrape her nails down the blackboard.
How did that make you feel? What you have there is a thought, which triggers a feeling. A schema or in NLP terms, an anchor.
This is what was created when you first had your bad incident. A schema was created to protect you in case it happens again. The downside to this is that your mind often gets this wrong. This is why people can have irrational fears and phobias of unusual things.
Remember, your body is just acting out what you told it when the incident first happened and therefore it tries to protect you. Most people see these as panic attacks, but they are our body’s way of trying to protect us, so they should actually be referred to as ‘protection attacks’.
What I had been doing since my fear of the dentist had first been installed was to give the fear evidence. These are called subschemas. Sub schema’s get installed at various points after the original schema was installed and they make further associations to the original fear. This basically says to the original schema that it was correctly installed in the first place. This makes the whole situation worse and becomes a vicious circle.
I had got to the point where all I had to was to hear the word dentist and it would trigger fear and anxiety. This was from all the subschemas that I had wrongly installed over the years since I had the bad experience.
What The Speakmans did was to create driving evidence that overwhelms the original thoughts and sub-thoughts, and asks, is this true now.
Your 7 step guide to overcoming your fear of the dentist (Dentophobia)
Here is your 7 step guide to overcoming your fear of the dentist. Use this simple guide to help you deal with your fear and phobia of the dentist.
1. Identify when you had your bad experience
Look back and try to remember when you had your bad experience. It may not be an experience you have had yourself, but it may be a bad experience you have witnessed or have been told about at a young age. Maybe one of your parents had a fear of the dentist and this has been passed on to you.
2. Don’t blame the dentist
Over time you will have a generalised fear of ‘The Dentist’. Take time to think about this and look back at what actually happened. For me it was my old dentist whom I had a bad experience with, not the new one. So why blame the dentist who does everything right and makes you feel reassured? This alone can help you see it for what it is and not how it feels.
3. See it for what it is not how it feels
If you can understand that you shouldn’t blame the dentist but are still getting those awful feelings in your stomach when you think about the dentist, how can you stop this? The only reason you are feeling anxious is because of your thoughts. There is a good reason for this as it’s your body’s way of protecting you. However, think of what it is you are having done. One of my fears was about choking, did it ever happen? Yes on a couple of occasions but it didn’t kill me. Was I a little embarrassed? yes, but dentists see this every day, it only feels bad because of the way you view it. Was it really worth all that fear? Why does it still happen though?
4. An anxiety attack is a protection attack
When you first had your bad experience your mind will have created an anchor thinking that it has to protect you in the future. So when you are next due at the dentist your mind will recall that you nearly died the last time you were there so you need to be protected from that again. So your body goes into protection mode and all sorts of things happen, mainly the adrenaline dump that occurs so your body can adapt to the dangerous situation. The thing is, there is nothing there to be protected from and what happens is, your body has an adrenaline dump which makes you feels anxious, dizzy and nauseous. When this happens, ask yourself this, what am I being protected from?
5. What is learnt can be unlearnt
Everything thing in life is learnt and we learn things through learning ourselves, copying others or from reacted behaviour. The human body doesn’t always get it right though, especially when reacting to certain situations. Ultimately it does this to protect us, which is something the human body needs to be able to protect us quickly. Remember that fear is not real as we are only born with the fear of falling and of loud noises. Everything else is learnt, copied or reacted behaviour. Therefore we can unlearn anything that has been installed in our brains throughout our life. We just have to believe that we can change these thoughts through our own thinking.
6. Believe in yourself
The Speakmans have some great tools to enable people to get rid of those pesky feelings we sometimes still can’t seem to shift. However, what happens if despite all the evidence, an understanding of how the mind works in situations and positive thinking, stills leaves you with a feeling of anxiety? Don’t worry, there is a way to eradicate those last few feelings of anxiety. The biggest step to a total recovery is to take massive action. To do this you must have a full understanding of what has happened in the past, what is happening now and what will happen when you confront your situation. Believe that your phobia is not real, take what you have learnt from this guide and take the plunge. All I ask when doing this is that you believe you can overcome your phobia and will stay positive through the whole process.
7. Take action, stay positive and keep your thoughts positive
Some people get to the point where they get so bad, they can’t even confront their fears and phobia’s. It is important for those people to go right back to the start and learn about why it is they have this phobia. If this is the case, go right back to Step 1 and build your confidence and evidence of the situation so you can get to the point of taking action. Now you have reached Step 7, you are just about there. Hopefully reading the earlier sections will have given you an understanding as to why you developed a phobia of the dentist and now realise its not just you, but a natural bodily function that is designed to protect you. Now all you have to do is to take action, stay positive and believe in yourself right throughout your visit. Remember that your mind will wander, so keep your thoughts positive and see it for what it is, not how it feels. You will be amazed at how your whole state will change once you confront your phobia and take action with a positive mindset.
Read on to find out how I stayed positive during my last visit to the dentist.
If you have any questions, just pop your question in the comments box at the bottom of the post.
How I stayed positive during my visit to the dentist
I still had a subconscious schema that was attached to a butterfly feeling in my stomach, but this only started again about 2 days before my appointment. This would have normally sent me into a negative thought spiral at least 3 months before that actual date, but this time it was not going to happen!! I wanted to overwrite this negative schema with a positive one. The only way to do this was to go into the situation being positive.
I set myself a goal to prove to myself and to the people on The Speakmans group that ‘How You Think is How You Feel’. This statement is so true and it empowered me to stay positive up to and during my visit to the dentist.
I changed every process and went in there a different person to what I normally would. I engaged with the staff, chatted to my wife and when I went into the dentist chair I even had a laugh with the dentist and his assistant. That negative schema didn’t even get the chance to raise its head, and even if it had, it wouldn’t have mattered as I was in total control of my thoughts. For the first time in years I kept my eyes open and watched everything he was doing, and I was calm.
Due to putting myself in this positive state, there were no feelings of anxiety, no thinking I was going to choke, nothing!!
On the way out, the receptionist even commented on how different I had been. When I told her what I had done, she asked me if I had any advice for her Arachnophobia!!
I’d say that was a success!
UPDATE – 07/02/2017 – Another year on, another year of learning
Yesterday I attended the dentist about a year on from learning how to accept and deal with Dentophobia. Since overcoming my fear of the dentist I just wanted to cover some things that have happened since. The subconscious mind is very good at learning, especially when it thinks it is in danger.
I explained earlier in the post how the mind can interpret situations in the wrong way since it thinks it is in danger. This then creates a reference for behaviour that is wrong. What we don’t realise is that we continue to support this reference for behaviour with other things and thoughts. Sometimes these things are nothing to do with the initial experience, but because you have connected the two, the subconscious mind then puts them together. Over time this can result in irrational fears.
What I have noticed over the last two visits to my dentist is exactly this. I had created lots of different references for behaviour (schema’s as the Speakmans call them or anchors as known in the NLP world) which resulted in the same sort of anxiety feelings. For example, I used to get my wife to book the dentist appointment and not tell me, she only told me about an hour before. Good, you might think? No, bad. This is still telling the subconscious mind that there is still something to be scared of as you are avoiding or hiding it.
This only resulted in things getting worse. I was getting anxious even when I didn’t know when my appointment was! It also resulted in more anchors being created for silly irrational things. I only had to look at the diary and see the appointment and I felt that stomach wrenching feeling. The thing is, I wasn’t even there, this was just a thought.
As you really get to know how your mind works and why these feelings and anchors have been created can you start to deal with things. The thing is, I bet a lot of people drop back into negative thinking as they will be unaware of bad anchors which they were not aware they had, making them think they will never be able to change.
As far as I am concerned the more you know the better. I have had quite a few of these bad anchors since initially learning how to deal with the phobia, however, I have accepted the thoughts and can see them for what they are, not how they have felt. Thoughts come and go and you have to accept them, not let them draw you into a negative cycle because of how they have made you feel.
This last visit presented me with the ‘appointment in the diary’ scenario. I have recently been reading a lot about mindfulness, and this particular technique pretty much eradicated any anxiety associated with just seeing the appointment. In fact, this has really helped me focus in all areas of my life. Write this down and read it every day until it becomes part of your subconscious mind.
If you have anxiety, you are living in the future. If you have depression, you are living in the past. Live in the present.