I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life. I’ve had racing thoughts about whether I was pretty enough, smart enough, good enough, and I was the classic perfectionist. Because I was of anything less than perfection, I was also extremely proud of anything that I perceived as perfect or near-perfect, including my straight, cavity-free, pearly white teeth. And though I had anxiety in most areas of my life, I wasn’t afraid of going to the dentist.

But I had a bad habit: I NEVER flossed.

Seriously, I only flossed about 1-2 times between my semiannual check-ups. I had done this for years, my whole life, really. And because I never had any cavities, I continued to maintain my years-long habit, even when I switched to fluoride-free toothpaste for personal reasons, and even when I had watch spots on my teeth. I still wasn’t afraid of going to the dentist, but then in September 2017 I got an ultimatum:

“Either you use fluoride toothpaste, or you start flossing daily,” my dentist said. The “or else,” was implied, but I heard it, nonetheless: Start flossing, or else you’ll get cavities.

The Onset of Cavities

After that cleaning, I suddenly had this crippling fear and anxiety. This dentist’s unspoken words kept playing through my mind over and over and over again, multiple times per day. Start flossing, or else.

Out of fear, I purchased floss. I started flossing about 3-4 times per week. But then my dental clinic asked me to reschedule because they had some changes in staffing. Since I was living in Madison, and my existing clinic was in Janesville, I told my dentist that I would find a new provider. My flossing habits fell by the wayside, and I put off looking for a new dentist.

In May 2018, when I was finally overdue for a cleaning, I thought I sensed a little bit of pain in my upper left teeth. I felt a jolt of panic. But rather than research and visit a new dentist, I fell into the following pattern: Panic when I felt pain in my teeth, feel intense fear that I had cavities, floss once or twice, fall back into inaction.

It wasn’t until the pain got more insistent that I finally Googled “signs of cavity.” Sure enough, tooth pain and sensitivity were primary indicators. I researched 2-3 clinics and made my appointment with Artisan Dental that same day.

The Cleaning

Walking into my cleaning and my exam with Dr. Meirick of Artisan Dental, I had a suspicion that I was going to hear that I had a cavity, and I feared hearing that. I feared having non-perfect, cavity-ridden teeth. I feared it would mean I was less as a person because part of my identity and self-worth was attached to having perfect teeth.

During the exam, Dr. Meirick asked me about my brushing and flossing habits. “I don’t floss consistently, maybe a couple times per week,” I said. “And I use fluoride-free toothpaste.”

Dr. Meirick explained that I might want to consider using fluoride toothpaste at least once per day. “But there are other things you can practice, too,” she said. “It’s been suggested that xylitol can help prevent cavities, so you could try chewing gum with xylitol in it. Staying hydrated and rinsing your mouth after a meal also helps.”

Though I was still nervous, I felt my anxiety ease a little bit. Dr. Meirick wasn’t judging me or telling me what to do: she was giving me options, and she acknowledged that more things contributed to the situation than just my brushing and flossing habits. Since I had recently been taught in my health coaching coursework that honoring clients’ autonomy was critical, I felt a rush of gratitude.

“I do want to go over your X-rays with you, though,” she said. She explained that I had three cavities on my upper left-hand side that she would recommend we fill: two that were minor, and one that was moderate.

I immediately burst into tears.

Dr. Meirick was very understanding and compassionate as I shared how I felt. She also expressed that she had cavities and answered my questions about the process of getting fillings. I was still hesitant, but I felt better.

Getting Fillings

At my filling appointment, I still had a lot of anxiety. I asked a lot questions about the tools and the process, and Dr. Meirick answered each one patiently in a calm voice. One of the dental assistants provided me earbuds and a blanket, and even let me borrow her connector so I could listen to calming music. I brought up a track on YouTube designed to release anxiety and settled in for the 90-minute appointment.

Focus on my breathing, I told myself. Focus on the music and on the words of the meditation.

Though the appointment wasn’t enjoyable, the deep breathing exercise, the calming music, and shifting my focus calmed my anxiety as I was getting fillings. We were able to complete all three fillings within the appointment, and I only needed one break during which I used the bathroom.

After I had my fillings, I noticed that I still had fear about my teeth. I had recurring thoughts of my next appointment, imagined that I would hear that my fillings would somehow have gotten larger in the last 6 months.

But this time, I realized that I was focused on the future, which was something I couldn’t control. I was tired of feeling constant anxiety about my teeth, so I sprung into action instead. I changed what I could: the present. I bought a new toothbrush, fluoride-filled toothpaste, and floss. I’ve been flossing almost every day since.

The best part? I no longer worry about my teeth. The thoughts and the anxiety are completely gone.

The Takeaways

Whether you’re part of the estimated 9-15% of adults in the U.S. who avoid going to the dentist because of anxiety or you know someone who struggles with anxiety, there are several things that can help.

  • Mindfulness-based meditation. By focusing on the present moment, we reduce the worry and anxiety that we experience. Practicing mindfulness with an app like Headspace, Calm, or Insight Timer can give you an opportunity to start shifting these habits.
  • Recognize fear as a growing point. Had I been able to see that my fear was giving me an opportunity to shift my habits, I wouldn’t have felt as much anxiety and worry as I did. If you’re able to do the
  • Practice good self-care. See yourself (and your teeth) as an investment, and think of the long-term. Who do you want to be 1-3 years from now? What habits would your best or ideal self have? Seek to cultivate those habits.

Love and blessings,
Kelly Noel