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dental anxiety for survivors

Dental anxiety is no joke for abuse survivors

by Matt Pappas

There are few things in life that I really despise more than going to the Dentist.  In fact, it ranks right up there with spiders and snakes; I could make a case for all 3 being tied for 1st place to be quite honest.

I should issue a trigger warning just to be safe, as I know this topic is very uncomfortable for a lot of us. So be kind to yourself as you read on.

In talking to other survivor friends, J, and my Coach, it’s pretty common for the Dentist to be triggering. Even if you weren’t abused or suffered some type of trauma, Dental Anxiety is still very real.

It all started when I was younger, late elementary school, because I had a serious overbite. Just add that to the list of things I got bullied for back in school. I can still remember the first time I learned of this. I was in bell choir at church and a member who is a dentist came up after the concert and told my parents that they should bring me in to see him soon.

Anyways, my middle school through mid teen years were spent going to the Dentist regularly. By regularly I mean like every 3 months to get my retainer adjusted, get impressions, cleanings, and God knows what else I can’t remember.

I still remember that triggering smell of the dentist office, it makes me cringe even today. Back then it was worse than it is now, but it’s still not exactly a walk in the park.  That creepy antiseptic smell, the hum of machines in the back rooms, just…ugh! I have to very cognizant of my emotions and realize that these feelings are valid.

I have very soft teeth so I have to be careful about how much hard candy or crunchy things I eat because my teeth can break fairly easily. Which brings me to the reason for this post.

I’m starting to write this on the evening before an appointment with the dreaded teeth doctor. I had two root canals a number of years ago that have since just not panned out. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say that I need to get some fix it work underway, which will take multiple visits.

I can feel the anxiety rush as I sit there and write this, but in typical Matt fashion, writing helps me cope. Thank you for hanging out with me while I get this first part down. Part II will be tomorrow afternoon when I get home and deal with whatever happens in the after hours.

I’m using some grounding skills right now as I type this. Feeling my feet on the floor, tracing the corners of the monitor in front of me, feeling my fingers hit each key on the keyboard, and some mindfulness meditation. Anything I can do to be fully present and mindful will ease at least a bit of the anxiety.

—————End Pre-Visit Jitters—————-

Well, I survived the experience and came away a bit surprised and relieved.

I made sure that I had my phone with me, fully charged, and my headphones so I could listen to a predefined playlist of music that I know would keep my mind occupied. I also helped deal with the anxiety by closing my eyes

My dentist was very patient, soft-spoken, and kind. She waited longer than normal to get started, to make sure I was feeling as comfortable and relaxed as possible. Plus it helped ensure that the Novocaine was fully in effect.

My Dentist and Doctor, and any other type of medical professional I deal with, has to be female. Males are just too triggering for me. 

I didn’t feel a thing the entire time, other than my jaw being sore from holding my mouth open for quite a bit of time.  As I write this now, the numbness is starting to subside and I’m waiting to see if the ibuprofen kicks in and keeps any soreness at bay.

I’m taking care to read and follow the instructions so that there are no infections or the dreaded dry socket. I had that before a long time ago when I had my wisdom teeth out, definitely not something to I want to experience again or relive now.

Anyway, while this might not seem like a topic to cover here on SMP, it is part of being a survivor and part of my recovery from abuse. Situations like going to the dentist or doctor can be especially triggering for many reasons. Perhaps we were treated poorly in a medical facility, or we had medical/dental care withheld from us, or the sounds and smells remind us of our abusers in other ways. No matter what the reason, suffice it to say that going through with these types of experiences even as we get older, can still cause a great deal of anxiety.

Some tips to help your next dental visit go as well as possible.

  • Take time to prepare yourself emotionally, and be kind to yourself. Validate your feelings and give yourself some credit for following through with the appointment. Reward yourself later when you are feeling better!
  • Ground yourself.  Feel your hands on the arms of the chair, feel your feet resting on the foot rest, tap  your fingers together.
  • Bring something a long to occupy your mind. Listen to music, close your eyes, and go to a more comfortable place in your mind. Music is especially good because it can help minimize the sound of dental instruments being used.
  • Tell your medical professional if you suffer from PTSD or Anxiety, so they are aware of how triggering these visits and procedures are. You don’t have to disclose your entire life story, but sharing with them why you are anxious and concerned can help ease your mind.

In my opinion, if they don’t validate you and take your concerns into consideration, I’d be finding someone else to go to. I told my dentist and doctor before that I have PTSD from being abused as a child. It’s in my chart, and it’s a good reminder for them to take a little extra time and care with me, just to be safe. I know I definitely appreciate that.

All that being said, while I will still never likely enjoy going to the dentist, I live to fight on another day by taking care of myself, putting my needs out in the open, and not being ashamed.



image courtesy of wallpaper.zone


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Don August 14, 2016 - 11:26 am

What you wrote – you sure you didn’t hack into my mind and write that. What you write feels like exactly what happens with me on dentists. I can’t go to male dentists either – way too triggering. I usually have Jeff in there with me because I’m far too afraid. Most dentists don’t get the fear. There are a few that do, but they are hard to find. I’ve had the dentists (when I got brave enough to share my fear) think that after one visit, it would all be gone. I’m like – you kidding me – the fear decreases when I leave a dentist office. Some just make it easier than others. It doesn’t go away with me.

I’ve tried to write about it as well on my blog, hoping that maybe it will help dentists understand. It isn’t them personally that is horrible, it is dental work in general (and the anxiety for me to even make an appointment).

I also ask to have my eyes covered a little so the bright overhead light doesn’t bother me. Bright lights are very triggering to me.

Joy Richardson August 19, 2016 - 1:47 pm

Can I have a link to your blog, Don? I always enjoy reading your comments.

Don August 19, 2016 - 3:28 pm

Here’s the link Joy. http://mindbodythoughts.blogspot.com/


Matt August 22, 2016 - 9:56 pm

I always highly recommend Don’s blog. Dude has it going on, and puts up a ton of information. Thank you for friendship man, and thank you for yours Joy.

Becca Cerveri March 11, 2019 - 9:38 am

I know this is an older post, but I just had to thank you for bringing this subject to light. I have horrible anxiety with dental work, dental offices and dentists in general. First of all, in my opinion, dentists are an odd breed. I can’t pinpoint why, but they all seem a little bent. This might come from going into a profession where you are generally hated by all who must see you.

I was severely abused and neglected growing up. We never saw the dentist, eye doctor or pediatrician/md. I was in the 6th grade when my teacher sent me home with a note saying I couldn’t come back to school until I had my eyes checked. I look back and believe the school did this for my own good. Being the last of three children, my teachers were well aware of who my mother was. Anyway, my panic comes from that lack of care and at one point needing my eye tooth pulled. It was a baby tooth that would not loosen and the adult tooth pushed through my gum above the baby tooth. Instead of taking me to the denstist to have my tooth professionally and safely, my mom pulled the tooth herself at home. I am 53 years old and can still feel her knees in my shoulder sockets. I can still taste the metal pliers and copper taste of my blood. The worst part was as she clamped down on that tooth she got a little of my lip which began to bleed profusely. Have no idea why, but she thought it was funny. She laughed so hard. Ha, ha, ha…real funny causing and watching your child bleed. Thank you for listening. I just needed to share that.

Matt Pappas March 11, 2019 - 10:09 am

Hi Becca,
Thank you so much for sharing some of your experiences. I am so very sorry for the pain and trauma you experienced at the hands of your mother in this way. You are absolutely validated in recalling those feelings still today; the mind and body don’t forget that kind of trauma. The dentist experience is difficult enough under safe, clean, secure circumstances but when you have a traumatic experience like you shared, it just makes it all the more difficult to go and take care of ourselves by seeing a doctor or dentist.

In case nobody told you today, you are stronger and more resilient than you’ll ever know, even when you don’t feel it. 🙂 .

Joy Richardson August 19, 2016 - 1:49 pm

When I was about nine years old I had to get a tooth pulled. I don’t remember why. I was sitting in the chair with my mouth open, afraid, when the dentist put those pliers in my mouth and she said, “I’m not going to pull the tooth out.” Relief washed over me. The next second, she yanked the tooth out. It’s not that it was excruciatingly painful, but I felt so betrayed! She probably did that to distract me, but I remember the betrayal to this day.

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[…] I wrote about how Dental Anxiety is no joke, and a real problem for survivors of abuse. Even those who are not survivors have […]


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