Nothing to fear... except the dentist’s chair

SCARY THINGS: Ellen's children face their fears

SCARY THINGS: Ellen's children face their fears - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

ARE you scared of anything? I mean, really, truly terrified?

Do you suffer from the kind of fear which makes your palms clammy, your heart race and your stomach churn?

Earlier this week I had a mild toothache. A niggling pain exacerbated when I ate anything sweet. I ignored it completely and to my delight it eventually disappeared.

“You still need to get an appointment at the dentist,” said my husband as he watched me carefully floss, brush and gargle with mouthwash.

“It will be the start of a cavity and the longer you leave it the worse it will get.”

I put my fingers in my ears and left the room.

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You see, I am one of the 16 million people in Britain who has an anxiety disorder known as a phobia.

Mine is called dentophobia.

In short, I will do absolutely anything rather than subject my senses to the whine and grind of the drill, the smell of disinfectant and the uncontrollable reflex instinct to gag.

My fear of the dentist started when I was a teenager.

I had braces – horrible metal monstrosities that cut into my gums and the soft flesh of my lip and prevented me eating anything other than soup.

Every visit to the dentist was torture and when it was all done, and I was left with straight pearly whites, I swore I would take such good care of them that I would never have to enter a dental surgery again.

Whether due to genetics or simple luck, avoiding visiting the dentist appears to have had little detrimental impact on my teeth and gums.

In fact, on the one occasion I went for a check-up, after my husband insisted I take the children and show them how brave I could be, I was told my teeth were in perfect condition.

For most, dentophobia can have devastating consequences.

Tooth decay tends to worsen over time and small cavities that once could have been easily filled can lead to expensive and invasive root canal and reconstructive work.

The trouble is, this knowledge can, in turn, make a frightened person even less likely to seek treatment, creating a vicious circle.

The term “phobia” is derived from the Greek word “phobos”, meaning flight, panic and terror.

Well-known phobias include fear of flying (aerophobia), enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), heights (vertigo) and of vomiting (emetophobia). But the most common are arachnophobia – fear of spiders – and ophidiophobia – fear of snakes.

Those of you who are lucky enough not to have a phobia will probably find the whole thing quite baffling.

After all, how can an educated person not be able to rationalise such a totally irrational concern?

But those of us who suffer can’t answer that, because really that is the whole problem.

We know the dark terror is simply our mind playing tricks on us but, try as we might, we can’t prevent our overreaction. It’s terribly depressing.

I console myself with the knowledge that, as a phobic, I am in fairly good company.

The great Roman warrior, Julius Caesar, for example, was known to have a fear of the dark and George Washington feared being buried alive.

Alfred Hitchcock was scared of eggs, Napoleon Bonaparte quaked at the sight of cats, and what about Woody Allen?

He is afraid of practically everything, including bright colours, animals, elevators and peanut butter sticking to the roof of his mouth. (This is called arachibutyrophobia.)

Professionals in the field of fear claim phobias have always existed but that some are more prevalent today than they were in the past.

For example, a report this week by sound experts Echo Barrier found there was a large number of people in the UK suffering from sedatephobia, a fear of silence.

It is believed our increasingly noisy world and reliance on technology has created a glut of people who find peace and quiet devastatingly unsettling.

My fear of the dentist seems quite normal in comparison.

According to Anxiety UK there are more than 400 distinct phobias recognised by doctors but one internet site ( catalogues more than 1,000 phobias, ranging from the common to the downright bizarre.

Some people suffer from allodoxaphobia – a fear of opinions – while sciophobics are scared of worms, pentheraphobics fear their mother-in-law and pogonophobics are frightened of beards.

If the sight of a very long word makes you rigid with terror, look away now, for the correct term for such a condition is, ironically, hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.

Until now, phobias have been generally treated with cognitive therapies, anti-depressant drugs and tranquilisers such as Valium, or by using hypnosis.

But last year scientists said they were working on a breakthrough medicine which could give cowards courage.

It would work by accessing the cerebellum, the part of the brain that handles basic emotions such as fear and pleasure.

Anaesthetic would help the patient switch off the fear impulses; which, in turn, would help them control their reaction to their phobia.

There is just one problem with the drug as far as I can see.

It has to be administered with a needle straight into the brain.

No good at all to the trypanophobics who fear injections, the pharmacophobics terrified of drugs or indeed those cephalgiaphobics who suffer from migraine anxiety.

They need the help like a hole in the head.

Please email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup

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