The Truth About Phobias and How I Overcame Mine

I have a dental phobia. When I think about the prospect of going to the dentist, my knees get weak, trickles of cold sweat accumulate on the back of my neck and I feel lightheaded.

There’s good reason for this. I grew up in a post-Communist country where empathy wasn’t exactly a dentist’s strong suit. For much of my childhood, I had dental work done without anesthesia. I remember once passing out in the chair during a procedure. When I came to, the dentist was still drilling away.

This year, my resolution was to address my dental phobia. In preparation, I decided to read up on phobias. Why do we have them? Can they be conquered? How?

The first thing I encountered in every definition of phobia was the word irrational: A phobia is an excessive and irrational fear. My particular phobia has a name, dentophobia, and unsurprisingly, it stems from traumatic early experience. However, not all phobias do. Some stem from evolutionary wiring — that is, we fear spiders and snakes because we’re conditioned, for self preservation, to see them as dangerous and potentially venomous. According to a study, phobias can even be passed on from parents to children.

The second thing that surprised me is that phobias, which are considered an anxiety disorder, are actually quite common: 19 million people in the US currently have one. It’s not always fear of specific things like bugs, dentists or heights. Social phobia, also known as social anxiety, is an intense fear of being humiliated in social situations. This can be so overwhelming that sufferers may resort to not going out in public altogether.

To treat phobias, most sources recommend exposure therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which exposes you to your fear in a controlled setting. Since I can’t afford both a dentist and a therapist, I decided to triage my needs — go for the dentist first, and see if I could “heal” myself of my phobia.

I realized the first step would be to give myself the illusion of certainty and control. This meant that I basically looked into every single dentist licensed to practice in New York City, read all of their reviews and finally settled on one.

I made the appointment and showed up on the scheduled day feeling kind of brave — but apparently not that brave, because I still had to bring my husband to hold my hand. I had given myself prior permission to wuss out: if I felt overwhelmed, I could always leave. I ended up only getting an X-ray of my teeth. The news wasn’t very good: I needed fillings, two root canals and to remove my wisdom teeth. I left the office feeling deflated; I wasn’t sure I had it in me to sustain the gumption I’d had on the very first day on subsequent visits.

Leading up to the procedures, the most successful tool I found to distance my phobia was to arm myself to the teeth (had to do it) with information. This did not mean reading online message boards filled with horror stories, but rather gathering information about the procedures and what to expect. I also found it helpful to establish trust with my dentist. When it was confirmed that the interventions she suggested were merited (a lot of dentists will suggest work you don’t need because it makes them money), I felt much more secure.

I finally made the second appointment. The days leading up to it were torturous. I don’t think I thought about anything but the dentist. I sent myself into panic mode with visions of the worst case scenario: What if, while the dentist was drilling in my tooth, I felt a sudden jolt of pain and reacted by clamping my jaw shut, therefore sending the sharp drill right into my brain, causing a massive cerebral hemorrhage and killing me on the spot. “Here lies Helena. She died while getting a filling,” my lonely tombstone would read.

I convinced myself of phantom pains and flossed like a maniac. I put together a playlist on Spotify and splurged on a subscription, lest any maddening commercials start playing during my procedure. Finally, Friday arrived. At the office, I buried my nose in a book and proceeded to read the same sentence over and over again until my name was called. Once in the dentist’s chair, I put my headphones on, closed my eyes and waited for the pain.

Excluding a tiny pinprick from the anesthesia needle, it never came. I left the dentist’s that day with a lopsided grin and three newly healthy teeth. It’s been several days since that last appointment, and I have two upcoming ones that I feel apprehensive about — but in a good way. It’s almost as if I want to hurry up and fix everything before I wake up, phobic again.

What I learned from my personal experience with phobia is I’d made a mountain out of a molehill. I’d allowed a hazy and traumatic recollection color my view well into adulthood, and in the process, managed to sabotage my dental health. Knowing I was putting myself at risk and begrudging the irrationality of my phobia only made me want to avoid the issue more.

Getting clear information from a trustworthy source helped me address it. I know that not everyone can afford to consult several dentists or get therapy. The key, for me, was to ease myself, incrementally, into a place of comfort. I brought a buddy along and didn’t care that I looked silly. I dressed up for the occasion (more irrational thinking: “dentists wouldn’t hurt someone wearing such a cute outfit”) and gave myself something to look forward to: a hair appointment the Tuesday after (“nothing bad can happen to me because I have places to be”).

I don’t think I’ll ever be fully comfortable with the dentist. But the past couple of weeks have helped me realize the awesome power fear holds over the human brain. It can completely ruin your life if you allow it. It can convince you that you’re feeling pain when you’re not, it can make your heart beat faster at rest and it can give you almost superhuman strength. Most importantly, it can stop you from enjoying your time here. Think of what you can accomplish by rerouting that energy into working through your phobia instead of rearranging your life around it. Believe me, it’s only as scary as you convince yourself it’ll be.

Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Photos by Group 1 International Distribution Organization Ltd. via Getty images and Vogue Runway; collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

Get more Brain Massage ?
  • Natt

    So nice to know that it’s not just me that has a phobia that can completely control you! I have a vomit phobia, which sounds insane I know, but it controls my everyday. Being around children makes me anxious since they catch tummy bugs like no-ones business, I wash my hands a billion times a day and I completely turned my diet around to cut the risk of food poisoning (I’m now vegan), and I haven’t drank alcohol for nearly a year. It’s so tiresome, I have a genralised anxiety disorder on top of that- guess what a common symptom of anxiety is?? DING DING DING -nausea!! So it’s a vicious cycle for me. I intend to get CBT beginning next year, it doesn’t sound like it but even considering tackling my phobia head on is a massively victory. When it was first offered to me I had a melt down in my councillors office! Apologies; this has turned into a huge life story, my original point was that I’m glad that this post exists, people should be aware of how difficult life really is with a phobia- a lot of people are of the assumption it’s just being a bit frightened, but it really is so much more! Kudos for writing this post!

    • Hellbetty666

      I fully agree that they can be life limiting. I’m an arachnophobe and it isn’t just a fear of big hairy tarantulas (weirdly, they are the ones I’m most okay about), but the house and garden variety sp***r. I love being alone, but at the back of my mind is always that fear “what if there is a sp***r?”

      Good on you for getting cbt though. I’ve wanted to do something about mine, but the thought that in the future I might have to confront the object of my fear is a little off putting. In the meantime, I’m trying to reframe my horror and focus on the beautiful aspects of them – that meme of the friendly little fella’s face is actually a huge help (can’t see the legs).

    • I thought I was the only one! I don’t have it as severe as you, but I’m paranoid about being around someone who may be sick with anything flu-like, I rarely drink because the results of binge-drink scare the crap out of me and I’m so weary of eating out anywhere new because food poisoning would be awful.

    • Habaloo

      Very interesting! The two times I’ve gotten food poisoning were from sprouts and lettuce, though. 😑😑

    • Jen

      Natt you are my spirit animal! I have the exact same phobia and, in many ways it DOES control my life. I had a traumatic bout of food poisoning 6 years ago and I haven’t been the same since given how sick I was. Since that ill-fated day, I wash my hands almost obsessively for 30 seconds each time, totally changed my eating habits, avoid kids like the plague for the reasons you stated above and get butterflies every time I eat out at a restaurant thinking I’m going to get sick again! Let’s not even start on my fears related to pregnancy. My low moment was when my mom was in the hospital and I had to bolt from the room after she came out of surgery after she said she felt nauseous—I was so scared she’d puke and I’d witness it. Lately, I’ve been forcing myself to kind of chill out because, after all, there ARE worse things in life than throwing up (right?!)

      • Natt

        Oh god pregnancy!! How did I forget that??! I totally feel you! I’m only young so I don’t want a baby right now anyway; but I know so many women who have told me absolute horror stories relating to their morning sickness and it’s completely put me off! Which sounds so awful ‘I don’t want a baby because I can’t handle morning sickness’ it embarrasses me to even think of! And I know exactly how you feel about running because people feel nauseous, my boyfriend came back one night after a bit too much (I’d consider a shot of absinthe way too much actually but each to their own haha) and he was so ill the next day i very nearly booked myself into a hotel!!

  • I grew up in a post-Communist country where empathy wasn’t exactly a dentist’s strong suit. 🙂 Just imaging growing up in a Communist country then 🙂
    There are 2 occupations I know were really hated during the (post-)Communist era: German teacher and dentist. I know about German teachers because when I became one, my adult students were shocked they could actually learn German a nice way 🙂
    And there are many dentist stories like yours so they must be true (I am not very sensitive in dental area and whatever they did to me didn’t stick). Which brings me to the question: is this really dental phobia you have? Because your childhood dental experience is such a strong cause for your aversion and you didn’t (irrationally) imagine the nastiness of it all but rather remembered it all these years?
    (I think the holy art of dentistry has changed much and our tooth diggers have been able to develop into tooth fairies because the technology makes it possible … )

    • Where did you grow up?! Maybe our dentists know each other 😉

      BTW: yes, still considered a phobia even if it’s an irrationally strong fear stemming from rationally scary circumstances.

      • Thank you – good to know.

        There is a zoo called Reptilium nearby and they offer special treatments for people afraid of many-legged or legless crawlies, whereby a psychologist teaches you how to deal with stress and even touch the animals. A good business model and maybe a possibility for some people in other places?
        (I am from eastern Slovenia)

        • Insanity! I lived in Ljubljana for 4 years and went to Osnovna Šola Danile Kumar! Some of the most pleasant and enjoyable years of my life–except for that dentist, Dr. Razingar, who happened to also be located in Slovenia.

          Small world!

  • Abby

    I have a very serious and deep rooted fear of medical procedures, which is super inconvenient if there is something wrong with me. I recently put off seeing a doctor for over a year because I was too scared.

    In the end my fears were sort of justified, because I had to get a biopsy and stitches, but I went in not expecting something that extreme and had them just spring the procedure on me and do it immediately, and that wasn’t so bad. Now, every time I start freaking out about a medical procedure (including: flu shots, dental visits, strep throat swabs, literally even the tiniest things) I remind myself that I got a fairly big deal biopsy done, all alone, with no warning and I lived and was fine! That experience has definitely done the most to step towards facing my fears.

    • What really amazes me about dentophobia or fear of doctors/medical procedures is that they kind of go hand in hand with agoraphobia, specifically being someplace remote and inaccessible by dentists or doctors. IMO, that’s when medical phobias get SO SCARY, because they can literally stop you from traveling or living your life: the fear that you might be hiking through Patagonia and get bitten by a spider and have to get to a doctor to have the venom sucked out…or something like that, can stunt any wish to live adventurously.

      Good on you for going through that biopsy on your own!!