Warning: How Fear And Anxiety Eat You Alive
My wife doesn’t like spiders in the house. When she gets surprised by one, she’ll express that “Eek! A spider!” response. She’s terribly afraid of spiders.
Fear is an immediate response to a perceived threat. Until a spider comes along, my wife feels perfectly fine.
After a spider encounter? Well, it’ll take her a minute or so to shake it off.
Anxiety is different. That’s where you stress over things before they actually happen... You refuse to enter that old tool shed, because it might be full of spiders or other creepy crawlers… You refuse to go to the dentist because it might hurt.
I’ve heard lots of people claim to have fear of the dentist. Yet for the last 25+ years of being a dentist, I’ve never once heard anyone say “Eek! A dentist!”
I have seen some true dental phobics. My mother was one. She couldn’t even come visit me at the dental office. That level of phobia is less common nowadays.
That being said, LOTS of people are anxious about going to the dentist. That’s one of our profession’s biggest challenges – helping people overcome dental anxiety.
Look beneath the anxiety to find the true fear.
Beneath that anxiety there’s often a fear factor. Fear of pain is a big one. Fear of needles. Fear of confined spaces. Fear of losing control. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of the unknown. All that gets wrapped up in so-called fear of the dentist. We’re an easy target to blame.
Let me put it another way. If you were terrified of heights and were taken to the top of a tall building with big glass windows, you would be afraid to look out those big windows. You’re not afraid of big windows or looking out of them. You’re afraid of heights. The windows are the conduit of your true fear, not the source.
That’s how it is with dentists. Look beneath the anxiety to find the true fear.
For clarity, I’ll outline some differences between fear and anxiety.
The Fear Factor
Fear and anxiety are often confused. Easy to do because they feel similar and one typically begets the other. Fear leads to anxiety, and anxiety leads to fear.
Confused? Brian Clark of Copyblogger explains the difference between fear and anxiety in his article Is F.E.A.R. Holding You Back?
Watch this video of a Bill Cosby comedy skit about the horrors of visiting the dentist… =>
At the time, people found that skit incredibly funny. Back in those days, fear of the dentist was widespread and strong emotions can be a shortcut to your funny-bone.
Fear is a direct response to a threatening situation. For example, unexpectedly coming face to face with a spider. If that’s a particular focus for your fear, you’ll get a strong reaction.
You’ll break out in a sweat and your heart will almost be jumping out of your chest.
Imagine for a moment walking down a dark street late at night. You’re tired and look forward to sleeping, when suddenly some street punk jumps out and points a gun to your head demanding money. You would feel startled and a rush of adrenaline would put you into a hyper-alert state.
Unless you have nerves of steel, you’ll experience a full-blown fight-or-flight response. You’ll break out in a sweat and your heart will almost be jumping out of your chest.
Phobia is an intense persistent fear of something. A bad experience in childhood can lay the foundation for a phobia. Once you develop a phobia, further exposure to it is likely to elicit an immediate fear response.
Top 10 Fears
- Snakes 51%
- Public Speaking 40%
- Heights 36%
- Confined Spaces 34%
- Spiders 27%
- Needles and Injections 21%
- Mice 20%
- Flying on a plane 18%
- (Tie) Dogs, Crowds, Thunder 11%
- Going to a Doctor 9%
That poll from Gallup was conducted on American adults.
Points of interest: Fear of the dark might be common for children but represented only 5% of adults. There were distinct gender differences, especially for snakes, spiders and mice. Interestingly, females scored higher for each of the Top 10 Fears except for one… Visiting the doctor.
Sometimes fear can be your best friend. It can save your life. Your adrenaline-based response is an ancient survival mechanism designed to help you take immediate action in dangerous situations. Like dodging from a charging saber-tooth tiger. Though I haven’t seen many of those around lately.
With that gun to your head, you’ll experience a full-blown fear response. It’s a quick and dirty system – fast but not precise. And it’s that lack of precision that makes it so messy.
It’s like letting the weeds take over the garden.
“How do I OVERCOME my fear and anxiety?” Just asking that question is a big step in the right direction. Many people would ask the wrong question – “How can I AVOID my fear and anxiety?”
Avoidance has consequences. Some problems tend to progress if left unchecked. That definitely applies to teeth. Also, anxiety tends to grow if avoidance becomes your primary strategy. Going to a dentist will be an even bigger barrier to overcome.
It’s like letting the weeds take over the garden.
Anxiety: The Real Enemy
Now, let’s say you recovered from that encounter with the street punk, but ever since that incident, you’ve had a hard time walking down any dark streets. Every time you try, you feel a sense of dread that something bad will happen. And with time, that apprehension has been gradually getting worse.
Anxiety is that vague, unpleasant apprehension that something bad will happen. An anticipation of negative outcomes, even with little evidence to support that.
Anxiety can stem from a traumatic experience. Seeing a spider isn’t exactly traumatic, but having a gun to your head certainly would be.
Anxiety can also be the emotional fallout from excessive worrying and an imagination caught in a negative spin.
Guess what? Whether the threat is real or imaginary, your physical body can’t tell the difference. Either way your body is put on high-alert and your resources are burned up fast. Any imagined threat can leave you feeling just as drained and exhausted as a genuine one.
That’s why anxiety is your real enemy. It will consume you like an energy vampire and make your days miserable.
What’s all that have to do with going to the dentist? Stay tuned for Part II of Dental Fear.
Stay healthy and keep smiling!
Dr. Joe 🙂
About the Author: Dr. Joe Bulger is a West Toronto dentist. He’s also the owner-founder of Royal York Dental – a respected dental clinic serving Etobicoke since 1950.
If you would like to learn more about your dental options, fill out our contact form or CALL 416 231-0550 for a FREE & Easy No-Obligation First Visit.