Going to the dentist has always been one of my worst panic triggers.
And last week, two of my fillings had to be replaced. My dentist insisted on an anaesthetic injection. Which I hate! The entire left side of my face was numb, including my nose and eye!
And then the procedure started. I closed my eyes and tried to relax. The bright surgical light above my face blinded me. Two people were pressing against me from each side. Inserting countless instruments into my mouth, manipulating my teeth.
I felt panic gripping me and fought it down.
But then out came the drill. The shrill screeching in combination with the unpleasant pressure against the affected teeth is terrifying. Saliva accumulated at the back of my throat and made me gag.
I tensed up. My finger nails were digging into my thighs. Adrenaline accelerated my heart rate and I wanted to scream, remove those utensils from my mouth, jump up and escape the awful situation so I could breathe again.
Panic had won again.
I felt like a total failure. I knew I wasn’t in any real danger. So, why was I so terrified?
What was wrong with me?
Not every fear response is a result of anxiety
Why was I so sensitive? So anxious?
But then I discovered that my response was not a sign of anxiety. Nor was I overreacting. It merely resulted from 3 common panic triggers that trick our brain in believing we are in danger.
Even without a real threat. And these triggers I want to share today.
Panic trigger #1: Overstimulation and overwhelm
The panic I felt at the dentist wasn’t a reaction to danger or pain. It was the result of overwhelm. All the noises, lights, impressions, the lack of space and control put my mind into overdrive.
It desperately tried to make sense of the situation, categorise what was going on and regain control to feel safe. But it couldn’t succeed.
The overstimulation and feeling of overwhelm caused stress and triggered a panic response. Not as a consequence of a real threat but because there was too much going on.
This doesn’t only happen at the dentist, mind you. Just think about a trip to your local shopping centre. Do you dread it? Does it make you feel anxious?
The masses of people swarming around you, bumping into you as they squeeze by. The constant noise of the chatting crowd, children screaming, music blaring in the background. Blinking neon signs, advertisements and window displays competing for your attention.
This is overwhelm deluxe!
Your mind loses control, can’t compute the unmeasurable amount of stimuli streaming into your system. And if the mind loses control, it panics. Because if it cannot comprehend its entire surroundings, it cannot exclude danger.
So it pushes the panic button. Just in case.
An extrovert’s delight is an introvert’s nightmare
Overwhelm is one of the most powerful panic triggers. And it is especially relevant for introverts who are prone to overstimulation. We require silence and solitude to rebalance and recharge. Hustle and bustle, crowds, excessive social interaction and external stimulation drain and exhaust us.
But our society is designed for extroverts.
And as introverts, we often feel we can’t cope, are socially awkward or weak because we are horrified of everyday experiences that we “should” enjoy. Shopping centres, parties, concerts cause anxiety, discomfort and stress.
Not because we are somehow damaged or there is something wrong with us. We are just easier overwhelmed because we thrive in quiet environments.
If you are unsure whether you are an introvert, here is a helpful and informative test. If your result starts with an “I”, it means you have an introvert personality. So look out for signs of overwhelm!
Panic trigger #2: The memory of suffering
When I was 18 years old, I was suffering from unbearable tooth ache. It was Easter and my dentist was off. The out-of-hours dentist tried to patch it up but only made it worse.
I was in agony for days, didn’t sleep, collapsed twice, cried for hours, almost choked on a pain killer tablet and finally, after 5 days of torture, had the affected tooth removed.
After that experience, fear would shoot through my body whenever I felt the slightest twitch in my mouth. Please not again!
I was traumatised.
While I was not in discomfort at the dentist last week, the situation evoked unpleasant memories of a time when dentist visits meant pain.
Our memories of traumatic experiences are often enough to activate panic mode if we encounter similar circumstances. The situation itself might be innocent but it reminds us of the past abuse, pain, accidents, violence, failure or embarrassment.
Trauma is the reason why you fear driving after you had an accident. Why you avoid people who witnessed you embarrass yourself. Why you are scared to start a new project after several failures. Or why you can't commit after you were dumped.
That’s traumatic memory. We want to avoid a repeat of the traumatic experience at any cost. Because we are horrified that whatever happened to us in the past will happen again if we find ourselves in the same circumstances.
Panic trigger #3: Resistance and aversion
Ok, hands up who loves dentist visits? Nobody? I thought so.
I certainly wasn’t looking forward to mine. I was treading it days in advance. I pitied myself for having to go. I felt grumpy and cranky.
Once I sat in the chair, the resistance amplified. My mind kept repeating “I don’t wanna be here!” I felt massive tension in my chest and extremities. Breathing became more laboured.
I felt trapped. In a situation I hated. With no way out.
I worked myself up into an emotional frenzy of resentment, upset and stress until the internal resistance became overbearing. And the result was panic.
Yet, I wasn’t in any danger! I just had an intense aversion to an innocent (albeit not pleasant) situation. And my ego threw a tantrum.
Resisting life’s experiences is like standing in the middle of a raging river, struggling upstream, fighting the current every step of the way. All your muscles are tense and engaged, you exhaust all your energy but you are getting nowhere.
And you are hurting yourself.
Some things in life we cannot change. We need to visit the dentist if we want healthy teeth. We need to attend that dreaded networking event if we want to progress our career. We need to make an appearance at that party if we want to avoid upsetting our partner.
It is our ego’s aversion and resistance that makes these things painful. Because we hate the situation, we overthink it. We worry about it, rehearse every possible outcome and interaction, lose sleep over all the details.
In our mind, the simple dentist visit, work meeting, social gathering morphs into an abominable horror show, bursting with threats, pitfalls and negative associations.
By the time we encounter the actual situation, we convinced ourselves that the danger is real. That our worries are justified. And that our anxious aversion is legitimate.
But it is, in fact, only resistance.
What to do when panic triggers rear their ugly heads?
So next time you feel panic crawling up through your guts, stop. Breathe deeply and ask yourself:
Am I in danger?
If the answer is yes, your fear is a natural, healthy reaction to a harmful situation. Get yourself out of there as soon as you can!
If the answer is no, you might mistake other responses to harmless situations for fear and anxiety.
1. Are you feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated?
If there is too much going on around you, find a quiet space for a few minutes. Go to the bathroom, pull over the car in the next layby or distract that toddler with a minipack of gummi bears.
Close your eyes and breathe deeply for a few minutes. Focus on relaxing every part of your body. Soak in the silence and let it recharge you and balance your emotions.
Remind yourself that you are not in danger. This is not fear. It is overstimulation.
2. Do you associate the current situation with traumatic memories?
If you panic because a situation resembles circumstances that caused you harm in the past, remind yourself that the situation in itself is not dangerous.
Yes, you experienced suffering in the past but the past does not define you. You are not what happened to you. The past only has power over you if you allow it. Breathe deeply and let go of the past.
Forgive the perpetrator, forgive yourself. Set yourself free.
Remind yourself that you are not in danger. This is not fear. It is a memory.
3. Do you feel a strong aversion towards your current situation?
If you panic because you find yourself in a situation that you feel a strong aversion to, it is the ego having a tantrum. Toddlers throw themselves on the floor, kicking and screaming if their emotions overwhelm them. They are scared and don’t know how to react. Your ego does the same.
A situation you resist causes an untamable wave of emotions that threatens to drown you. The result is panic.
Remind yourself that you are not in danger. This is not fear. It is resistance.
We tend to believe that our panic is caused by fear and anxiety. We feel weak, damaged and worthless for being so scared.
But a lot of the time, our panic isn’t a consequence of fear. Once you diagnose the true panic triggers, you can switch it off.
You are stronger than you think! You are capable of coping with your life.
And you ARE worth no matter what! Always remember.