Facing Life Fearlessly (Even at the Dentist)

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Sometimes fear prevents us from doing what we know we need to do. But why are we willing to hand over control of our decisions to what is, after all, an emotional response?

The tender spot on my gum had been threatening to turn into an abscess for quite some time, and after its last flare-up, my dentist had warned me that I would not be able to postpone the inevitable indefinitely: “I’m afraid you’re going to need root canal work on that, Libby”. The very thought of it made my stomach turn instantly into a tight and painful knot. Having had very bad experiences with dentists as a child — the dentist who used to visit our rural school had memorably shaky hands and appeared to be at least 110 years old — I preferred to avoid dentists and dental work whenever possible.

But recently, the ‘inevitable’ finally arrived and so I found myself in the dental surgery quite literally shaking with fear, knowing that I couldn’t avoid the root canal work any longer. While the saying goes ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’, I wasn’t so much ‘doing it anyway’ as doing it because I had no choice and feeling the fear in every quaking muscle fibre.

Trying to distract myself from the anxiety over just how painful it would be if my dentist (albeit a man with very steady hands) accidentally hit upon a non-anaesthetised nerve, I started thinking about how fear can cast a shadow over our lives and alter the choices that we make about living that life. At times, fear can even make our decisions for us. So why are we willing to hand over control of our decisions to what is, after all, an emotional response?

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Fear of the imagined consequences perhaps? If I do ‘x’, then ‘y’ will happen. If I say ‘a’ then ‘b’ will follow. We imagine that we can predict the future, and that can prevent us from actually doing what we need to do. Sometimes these fears are based in past experience — like my fear of going to the dentist. But circumstances can and do change, and a fear that was a perfectly understandable and even logical response to that past event can become an out of date and potentially dangerous handicap to taking the action that’s necessary.

Avoiding facing your fears is a bit like walking down a city street late in the afternoon and trying to avoid being touched by the shadows that are lengthening and stretching ever further across the pavement; rather than taking a straight course, you’d feel obliged to weave your way between the shadows, maybe having to avoid one or two places you’d really like to visit if only the sun was shining on them, rather than being drenched in that fearful shade.

I was reminded of a news story I read this week about a man in his 30s who hated the idea of going to see his GP, and so for months he avoided facing his fears about the mole on his leg that was growing, changing shape and colour and becoming increasingly tender to the touch. When, at last, he went to see his doctor, it was too late and he was told the malignant melanoma that had begun in his mole had spread through his body and resulted in terminal cancer. His dislike of going to see a doctor, and his fear of what he might be told, had led tragically to the very consequences he feared the most.

Thankfully, not all fears have such potentially lethal consequences if we avoid facing them. Along with dentists, I’m also afraid of rollercoasters, but avoiding rollercoasters is not likely to kill me or lead to painful consequences further down the road, whereas avoiding going to see a dentist or doctor for fear of what they might tell me or do to me could be disastrous.

Perhaps one solution is to work out which of your fears can be safely accepted as ‘just a part of who I am’, and which need to be faced and worked through in order to free yourself from their malicious power over you and your decisions.

As it happens, the root canal work was nowhere near as bad as I’d feared. Lying back in the chair, I tried to stay ‘in the moment’. Part of me kept mentally revisiting that horrifying scene in the film Marathon Man, where Dustin Hoffman’s character is tortured by the sadistic Nazi dentist, whilst in another part of my mind I kept reminding myself that right now, I was not feeling any pain at all, that right now my jaw was not aching, that right now I was actually OK.

Living ‘in the moment’ can be a helpful way of coping with fear and anxiety. It’s a way of tuning into how your body is feeling in each passing moment, and of how you are responding emotionally and mentally to what is going on inside and around you. Rather than focusing on the ‘what ifs’ which are in the unknowable future, you are trying to focus on the here and now. This technique is called ‘mindfulness’ — it’s easy to learn in principle and with practice can become an integral part of who you are and how you experience the events in your life, both good times and bad.

My fear of the dentist had prevented me from seeking help for my painful gum earlier, when the solution might have been a simple filling rather than an hour and a half’s worth of jaw-stretching dental surgery. Not to mention the extra expense. For me, this was definitely a fear worth facing; I’m now pain-free, and the thought of going back for a permanent filling in a couple of weeks’ time doesn’t seem daunting at all. Which is more than can be said for the thought of going anywhere near a rollercoaster.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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