Are You Caught in an Endless Worry Loop?
Welcome to Part II of Dental Fear & Anxiety.
In Part I of Dental Fear & Anxiety you learned about the difference between Fear and Anxiety.
To refresh…Fear involves the response to an immediate threat.
Anxiety is the vague apprehension that something bad will happen and is fueled by excessive worry and underlying fear.
Here in Part II, I’ll get a little more into the nitty gritty of how fear and anxiety can have a lasting affect and why this influences your dental experience.
The Primitive Brain – Wired for Fear
The base of your brain is equipped with an early warning system. It’s on a primitive part of your brain that regulates emotions called the Amygdala.
That extremely intense encounter you had with the street punk (see Part I) imprinted a memory on this part of your brain. Now your brain is rewired so any future encounters of a similar nature will invoke a faster response time.
Once you’ve been wired for fear, any time you get in a similar situation you’ll have that powerful urge to duke it out or skedaddle.
This warning system only applies for negative encounters – things perceived as grave threats. The emotional intensity of the initial incident determines the imprinting. Something mundane won’t make any imprint.
Here’s the problem. This imprinting is emotional-based which means it will defy logic and can endure for years, or even a lifetime beyond that initial incident. People can end up with unusual fears such as clown phobia (see video).
The other thing is that children are emotionally vulnerable and that makes them very susceptible to imprinting. This imprinting is unpredictable. What affects one might not affect another. Some children are more fearful by nature.
The bad news is your fear-response can occasionally go haywire. Instead of a survival mechanism for handling genuine threat, it can disrupt normal life and become a source of embarrassment that leads to social withdrawal.
The good news is you can overcome any imprinting. You can desensitize yourself and learn to embrace that which you once feared.
Tame that Worry Habit
To worry is to be concerned about the near future, and that’s generally a helpful emotion. As with many emotions, it’s a signal for you to take appropriate action.
When you worry too much, your imagination tends to be caught in an endless loop of disaster scenarios.
Without worry in your repertoire, you would be reckless, cavalier and ill-prepared for daily living. Imagine a mother lacking any concern for the health of her young child. What chance of survival would that child have?
Patients who don’t worry about teeth are less likely to take care of themselves and tend to be Dental Avoiders. To them, dental care seems like a bad deal compared to a big night out on the town.
They could be in for a rude awakening.
The flip side is to over-worry. Worrying can be addictive and too much of a good thing can be toxic.
Have you ever met someone who seems to have a Worry Button that’s stuck in the ON position? When you worry too much, your imagination tends to be caught in an endless loop of disaster scenarios. Instead of making the best of a situation, you’re left wallowing in anxiety. Instead of taking appropriate action, you’re left paralyzed.
Excessive worry is the main component of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Once your anxiety level ramps up, you become more susceptible to panic attacks. That’s where your brain hits the proverbial Panic Button without the presence of a genuine threat.
Patients who excessively worry cannot relax and enjoy themselves in the dental chair. They carry the burden of trying to ensure everything will work out. And yet, that’s not their job. It’s ours.
What’s the cure for this?
Leadership and trust. Once I can establish a foundation of trust an demonstrate that you’re now in good hands, you’ll finally be able to relax and let go of the burden of shouldering all responsibility. What a relief!
Emotional Reasoning – Living the Drama
If you indulge in Emotional Reasoning, you’ll be feeding your anxieties instead of taming them.
There’s also a strong tendency for people to engage in something called Emotional Reasoning. That’s where people interpret that what they’re feeling as the absolute TRUTH. If you feel safe then it must be safe. If you feel threatened then it must be a threat to you.
That’s dangerous thinking. Emotions are meant to be action signals that help trigger an appropriate response. They’re like sparks to get the engine going.
The danger of letting your emotions run the show is they can be way off base and lead you astray. Emotions are a great initiator but an unreliable guide.
If you indulge in Emotional Reasoning, you’ll be feeding your anxiety instead of taming it. Your emotions become amplified as they step up into the foreground. Negative emotions can begin to dominate. Your life can become a tense drama instead of a lighthearted, feel-good story.
Children in particular aren’t very skilled at separating emotions from reality. They’re prone to Emotional Reasoning and they’re easily upset. Children are susceptible to emotional flooding where they become overwhelmed by emotion.
As a dentist, children can be challenging.
I recently had a young boy in the chair for some dental work. It was a relatively easy procedure, but he was somewhat anxious from the start.
Children have wonderful spirits. Some are indomitable, some are more vulnerable.
This boy was the sensitive type and struggled through his visit.
When we were finished, he let out a big sigh of relief.
I asked him, “Was that pretty tough?”
“Yeah” was his answer.
“Which part?” I replied.
He thought about it but couldn’t say.
Why? Because it really wasn’t all that tough. The actual procedure was a breeze, but his internal anxiety was ratcheting up the drama.
Once fear comes into play, that can mean lifelong suffering from anxiety.
Here’s the thing… The challenge of dentistry isn’t just the procedure, it’s effectively managing a patient’s response to it. The inside story can be completely different from outside reality. All that anxiety and apprehension can make for a miserable experience.
What’s the solution? Children need a dose of confidence. Encouraging them and praising for small victories can help create a smooth progression from start to finish.
The important thing is not to expose a child to a traumatic event that will imprint them with a bad memory. Once fear comes into play, that can mean lifelong suffering from anxiety.
The big challenge of dentistry is deprogramming people that are already wired for fear and anxiety. Luckily we have effective Sedation Dentistry techniques that allow high-anxiety patients to receive much-needed dental care in relative comfort.
I hope this review on fear and anxiety has been helpful for you. This subject is near and dear to my heart. I’ve had my own share of dental nightmares growing up.
“How I learned to stop worrying about the dentist and start loving my smile.” That’s the main headline on our website at Royal York Dental, and I hope those words come true for you.
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.
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