One of my favorite books has always been the 1964 classic The Myth of Mental Illness, by Thomas Szasz, MD. A psychiatrist and still writing at the ripe age of 91, Szasz castigated his fellow professionals for labeling too many people with relatively mild emotional symptoms “mentally ill,” especially when it came to medicating or hospitalizing them.
What we now call mood disorders (including such familiar diagnoses as depression, anxiety/panic, obsessive thinking, and PTSD) Szasz felt were over-diagnosed, with physicians reaching for their prescription pads as quickly as Wyatt Earp drew his Colt at the OK Corral.
Situational anxieties, such as fear of dental work or flying, can certainly make their victims miserable. But even though over the years I’ve examined some pretty neglected teeth and witnessed more than one major airline passenger meltdown, I would never label sufferers mentally ill simply because their behavior goes against the accepted norm of how people should act.
Dental and airplane anxieties are currently classified in DSM-IV (the diagnostic manual of mental illness) as phobias, which seems to me seriously off the mark. A phobia is a persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear that truly (truly!) interferes with a person’s life, like the fear of open public spaces (agoraphobia) or closed ones (claustrophobia).
What might perpetuate the myth that dental and flying anxieties are forms of mild mental illness is the fact that medications used for mood disorders do work and are readily accepted (often with gratitude) by patients. A Xanax taken an hour before a root canal or boarding your flight does provide a reasonably useful Band-Aid, and many patients maintain a Xanax stash for just these occasions.
But despite the availability of helpful medications, what Szasz would say is that fears of dental work and flying are not particularly unreasonable…and they’re not phobias. In one survey of dental-phobics, most patients were fearful of pain because they’d experienced severe dental pain in the past.
Well, that’s certainly not irrational.
These people also feared dentists and hygienists (as a source of pain or doing unnecessary work), feared drug reactions, and feared “something going wrong.”
Virtually everyone with a fear of flying has seen photographs of godawful plane crashes, terrified at the thought of being five miles up in the air in a gasoline can with wings (though, statistically, driving is riskier).
Drug-free anxiety relief with ear acupuncture
If any of the above applies to you, and you’re not needle-phobic, you might consider ear acupuncture instead of drugs for your next dental work or flight. One recent research paper out of the Medical University of Vienna (Freud went there, by the way) showed a dramatic reduction in anxiety when ear acupuncture was performed the same day as the dental visit.
The ear as a site for acupuncture is one of the so-called microsystems of Chinese medicine, where an outline of all body parts and internal organs appears in one small area of the body. Other microsystems are the surfaces of the hands and feet, the back, and the scalp. One advantage of microsystem acupuncture is that the needles used are extremely small and barely felt.
After treatment, many practitioners tape very tiny metal beads to the same ear acupuncture points they’ve activated during the session. Simply pressing the bead between your thumb and forefinger is enough to replicate the needle’s action on your meridians and extend the clinical effect of your treatment. Later, you can cheerfully explain to your dentist/flight attendant/fellow passenger why you keep squeezing your ear, yawn a couple of times, and doze off.
Another advantage of ear acupuncture is the DIY component. Instead of Xanax, you can keep a tiny vial of beads in your medicine cabinet. No more of that vaguely guilty feeling you get when pill-popping, no more Xanax side effects (and there are more than a few). Just place a bead on a piece of tape and press it firmly on your ear point. In the long run– and this is the real advantage of using ear acupuncture–you’ll feel the emotional baggage of your dental visit or cross-country flight begin to lessen.
Ultimately, you’ll need neither Xanax nor the bead.
All the traditional Chinese medicine practitioners at WholeHealth Chicago are familiar with ear acupuncture for dental and flight anxieties. Since these treatments can be performed while you sit in a chair and don’t require any extensive diagnostic evaluation, if you want to try this on the way to your dentist or the airport, just call ahead to make sure we have a practitioner in the office.
You’ll be treated between scheduled patients, sit in a recliner for 15 to 20 minutes with the tiny needles in your ears, reading your book and sipping some herbal tea (or BYO Starbuck’s), and you’ll leave with some beads taped into place, all for just $25.
Unlike Xanax, you’ll be completely awake and alert, with no interference in whatever activity you’ve planned for later that day, like maybe your skydiving lesson.
David Edelberg, MD