This May Sting a Little

Intellectually, I know what’s going on. My amygdala has been hijacked and triggered a red-level alarm that temporarily suspends activity in my prefrontal cortex to divert all neural resources to the survival brain. My sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive as I try to decide between fight or flight, and all intelligent reasoning is gone. From a psychological perspective, facing you and your hygienist in your office is no different than coming face-to-face with a pack of wild boars in the forest. An irrational fear, I know. Illogical? Uh-huh. But is it real? As real as the mask covering the contempt on your face.

I tell you this so you may realize that rolling your eyes at me when you read “EXTREME DENTAL ANXIETY” in my chart isn’t a great way to reduce my extreme dental anxiety. I know you think that after I get that shot that turns my whole mouth into a drool machine that I can neither feel nor control, I should be just fine and any and all expressions of discomfort are not only unwarranted but just plain ridiculous. “This may sting a little,” you say dripping with condescension. I think of a million ways to describe how it feels. “This stings” isn’t one of them.

Even though I can only see a small sliver of your face, your disdain is clearly visible. Like I’m not even worthy of your finely honed practice… like you’d rather reserve your drill, needles and metal pokers for a patient who will actually appreciate them. It’s not like you haven’t given me plenty of time to prepare for this. You kept me waiting in your plastic-covered chair staring at the instruments of torture longer than what would be required to push my anxiety level to “maximum.” (As if the drilling, sawing, and hammering in the home renovation show I watched in your waiting room wasn’t an adequate prerequisite.)

By the time my mouth is full of said “instruments,” I vacillate between apologizing profusely for thinking you are a terrible, horrible, sadistic bastard and actually calling you a terrible, horrible, sadistic bastard. I’m in full-on panic mode by this time. I’m reminding myself to breathe, praying that I don’t pass out completely, and wondering if unconscious might be a better way to play this. I’m also wondering about the statistics of dental-phobic patients arrested for assaulting sadistic dentists.

By this time, I’ve pressed my entire body into the chair with such force that I’m actually concerned it may break and I’ll go crashing to the floor headfirst. I imagine myself lying there… feet in the air, chin to chest with a steady stream of slobber dripping off lips I can no longer feel. To which I picture you crossing your arms, shaking your head, and in a scolding tone telling me, “You just stay there for a while and think about what you’ve done!”

While this nightmare scenario bounces around my head, You’ve completely crossed the personal space boundary reserved for someone I want to kiss — and you’re not that someone. Also, I can’t figure out where to look. Locking eyes with you is just creepy, darting back and forth between your eyes and that light with the saran-wrapped handles feels weird, and closing my eyes just intensifies the reality that there’s a whole lot going on in my mouth that I not only have no control over, but that I don’t deserve to know. It’s my punishment for being that “crazy cry-baby patient” you and your staff will double over in laughter about as soon as I leave.

Without question, the worst part is the drill, not just because it hurts, but because it sounds exactly like the weapon Freddie Kruger used to slaughter all those college kids. But this is no movie prop. It’s weaponry in my mouth. That unmistakable high-pitched whine is accompanied by that unmistakable burning smell followed by a steady stream of water to keep it from setting my face on fire and the gross suction thingy so I don’t choke to death.

If there really is a hell, I’m certain it sounds like that, smells like that, and includes fireside chats about periodontal disease caused by the failure to floss while videos of relaxed, beautiful people flashing pearly-white smiles in a dentist-free heaven are projected on the Jumbotron. The “Breaking News” chyron at the bottom of the screen reads: HEAVEN SHUTTERS DENTIST OFFICES AND PLACES AFTERLIFETIME BAN ON DENTAL DRILLS.

One of the questions that pokes my brain in the middle of the night is how can we develop technology that allows us see neural activity as we listen to music, eat chocolate or watch porn, but we can’t figure out how to invent a dentist drill that doesn’t sound like it’s grinding through tooth and tissue directly into the gray matter that separates us from potato bugs.

But I digress. Back to us.

By the time you snap those latex gloves off of your cold fingers, you’ve completely dismissed me as a nut job who couldn’t manage a peanut butter sandwich. I assure you, I have a real job. I’m educated, resilient, and capable of maneuvering through more than basic life challenges. I’ve climbed some pretty tall mountains. I’ve been scared, I’ve stumbled, and then gotten back up to accomplish more than a few things over the course of my life. I don’t have many irrational fears, but I’m completely terrified of you in a way I suspect you’ll never fully understand.

I want to remind you that MOST people have trauma responses/irrational fear/intense emotions when they think of you. It’s not because we are crazy. It’s because the mouth and face contain 30%-40% of the body’s sensory and motor nerves. The mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of the body, and dental work of any kind activates the sympathetic nervous system designed to protect us against scary or painful stuff… and what you do qualifies as both scary and painful.

You, Doctor, penetrate people. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. The entirety of the profession you’ve chosen is invasive, uncomfortable, and painful. You have to know that creates angst, at the very least, in the best of us. It’s not psychopathy. It’s neurology and biology… and I think you might have learned a little about both in dental school.

Given all of that, I’d say I’m more normal than the dentist who has no empathy for people like me.

For the love of all that is good in the world, at least pretend you have an ounce of compassion for people who literally have to will every single cell in their body to join forces in courageous solidarity to open the door to your office… people who dig deep to face their “irrational fears” after sleepless nights and a steady diet of Aleve and Anbesol because the pain is excruciating.

Because a little compassion goes a long way and it’s better than any sedative you could ever prescribe.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Melissa, you have such a story-telling gift. I am half-empathic, half-laughing at how well you share your story.

    I hope the above doesn’t sound cruel, but I can literally ‘feel’ your words. Really quite rare for writing to have that impact on me. thank you and I hope your experience improves.

  2. The mark of a great writer are the memories you dig up for others. Look at what “fun” you’ve unleashed here!

    I was in that 10% as a kid. Preferred the drill sans pain killer for extracting cavities instead of first numbing the area. Hated the needle! My grip marks are still in the arms of that chair, which is now ensconced in a dump somewhere outside of Chicago. Today? Needle away, Doc. I just close my eyes and listen to the classical music he’s playing.

    I wish I could make it – your dentist experience – better as my Mom used to say. Virtual hug? Hey, what’s the adult version of that early dental treasure box?

  3. Melisssa, I am petrified of dentists. My son is 33 years old. The last time I went to the dentist was at least a couple of years before he was born. I remember the pain of the needles, the drilling, and the extractions. This is not rational or responsible behavior for an adult nonetheless I am severely “allergic” to sharp-pointed being jammed into my gums. Needles in the arm or the multiple injections of insulin I give myself a few times per day do not bother me. I feel pain when I walk past a dental office. They don’t make much bigger chickens than me when it comes to the dentist!

  4. Thank you for this Melissa,
    As I read your words my mind starts sending snapshots of earlier days to a dental office as a child. I couldn’t help but smile as I recall the screams i belted out and tears of pain running down my cheeks. I couldn’t understand why I had to endure this torture…even though I was told it was good for my dental health. What I couldn’t figure out was why the needle hurt more than anything. My pain was coming from the product that was suppose to stop pain, that I didn’t feel before? This kid was confused. Back then the sight of this needle was something that caused the fear and just put a bad taste in my mouth ( haha) regarding dentistry. I was mad. The next time I went and from that day on… all dentistry work I had was without the freezing! The dentist was forced to go easy on my teeth and drill a bit, stop, drill a bit, stop… suffice to say, it was the dentist that was told how to treat me…by me.
    Fast forward… being a lifelong dental disaster… I truly do regard the anxiety as something from my youth. I have had many dental professionals visit my mouth, all to which I’ve had a great amount of anxiety. I still do. I suffer a great deal with some form of un-identified necrotizing periodontal disease… the carnage never ends. My extenuating circumstances are not without the eroding decay of stories as insurance was something to contend with. My mouth has cost me a bloody fortune, the anxiety has caused stress, and the lack of insurance? Is it any wonder? Seems a vicious cycle. The oral cavity.. and it’s travesty!
    So thanks for writing about this. It’s something I have not thought of doing, but Have wondered how to deal with often. Dentistry Isn’t a hot topic is it since we feel the awful effects without being in the seat we hate. It never stings a little.. it was always a lot! Lol
    Sorry for the length. I was just here and started writing a response.. I really like your descriptive structure and emotional reflection… it worked as you can tell here.
    Have a great week Melissa

  5. I guess I’m not surprised that this wasn’t what you shared at the beginning of our podcast episode together when I asked you to tell us something most people don’t know about you, Melissa!

    Have you ever thought of bringing a friend you trust to sit with you and hold your hand? I’ll be there with you if you give me a bit of notice. Apparently I’m a very small minority – I have no fear of dentists. Weird, right? I get it, though, especially after seeing Steve Martin’s Oscar-worthy performance in Little Shop of Horrors. Despite my lack of fear in that chair, the lyrics from the song are usually in my head: “You’ll be a dentist! You have a talent for causing pain.”

  6. Melissa, I shared some of this with Susan Rooks in an earlier thread. But I’ll share more of it with you here:

    I share your fear. In short, before the age of 10 or 12, I’d endured the sadism of two butcherous dentists and one gruesomely incompetent oral surgeon. The experiences left me rattled for life. When I moved to go to college in my late-20s, I found a dentist whose display ad in the Yellow Page said, “We cater to cowards.” I called and said, “You don’t know me, but I’m your boy.” I went to him for more than 25 years, even though he was little better than the first two.

    In 2006, I moved again. I found a new dentist. She’s a beautiful young woman. She’s done some pretty extensive and protracted work in my yap and has never once hurt me. She’s told me I’m her best patient. She’s told me she’s been comfortable performing procedures on me that other people wouldn’t have been able to sit through. I’ve moved again since I met her, yet I still drive more than 45 minutes, one way, to go to her. And I STILL go through precisely the same agita every single time.

    Maybe instead of inventing new dental tools, we should invent a way to give ourselves new wiring.

    Thank you for making me laugh through my terror and for explaining its persistence. I’m happy to know I’m not alone.

  7. Thank you for this, Melissa! As painful as this is, you present it with an entertaining delivery. Although I do not suffer from dental anxiety, I would not consider being my favorite endeavor, especially since I have been lax in visiting. I make a call.💖

  8. Oh my gosh, Melissa, I’m laughing so hard that I have tears rolling down my face (and I think I even did a little snort/squeal laugh at one point). I adore you. I was sitting in that chair with you and you brought every moment to life in technicolor. I would have spilled my wine from laughing, if you’d been sharing this story in real-time, and that, my friend, is the sign of a brilliant story. I’m so sorry you have to endure such torture in order to bring such honesty to the page!

  9. WHAT WERE THE ODDS, Melissa?????? I am deep in dental anxiety right now, thanks to early treatments (back in the dark ages), some not-so-perfect taking care of my teeth, and the reality that I’m now paying the piper (and will for a year or more).

    Remember that movie “Marathon Man” with Dustin Hoffman? Yup. Just about like that for me.

    I just fired my latest dentist (for not calling me back for an entire week when he knew why I needed him to answer) and his buddy, the periodontist, for his demeaning attitude, for not listening.

    Finally got lucky — a local woman dentist. Her wonderful hygienist, both of whom sat down, looked me in the eyes, and asked me how they could help. Dear heaven, they appear to actually care. And since I’m facing several surgeries and mucho dinero flying out the door … not to mention the STARK FEAR about the whole megillah — phew. I may live after all.

    Why do I think you hit the jackpot with this one? I can’t wait to see how others respond. Of all the topics … 😆🤣😂

    • I feel you, Susan. I have been in dental hell for the last week. I lost a filling (circa 1972) and managed to find my “big girl pants” to make an appointment and get myself in there. He couldn’t have been more dispassionate about my dental anxiety if he tried. When I tried to explain my angst, he literally said, “I am a dentist, not a magician. I cannot make something that is inherently unpleasant pleasant just because you have anxiety.”

      I did find an endodontist who is kind and compassionate, but not until my face swelled up like a cabbage patch kid and my face was on fire. (Stay tuned… it’s this week’s Neuro Nugget.)

      I’m glad you found a good dentist, too!