Fearlessness and Frozen Peas: Takeaways From Anxiety

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” — C.S. Lewis

Well, Mr. Lewis, I apparently have not. When the kindly doctor man peered in my mouth and proclaimed the need for oral surgery recently, my maturity fell away. I felt like a five-year-old kid fearing booster shots, the boogeyman, blindness (too many episodes of Little House on the Prairie).

I consider myself relatively fearless. I’ve overcome my share of hardships, certainly worse than wisdom tooth extraction. But the thought of someone forcing me unconscious, stealing my mind with the prick of a needle, left me vulnerable and naive, fighting thoughts of I WANT MY MOMMY!. I must have had some semblance of grownup thought left, as I took the first available appointment—a mere three days later.

Then with clammy palms and my heart already racing, I hit the gym. I posted a comment about anesthesia-phobia on Facebook, shared the news with kin, and pounded out my angst on the elliptical machine. It’s a blessing, I told myself. I have insurance. Dentistry’s come a long way! Think about people without food on the table, much less medical care. It’ll prevent complications down the road. And who wants an infection? Just because some people have suffered heart attack, stroke and death on the table, doesn’t mean YOU will. The wavers you signed were precautionary…Would you rather feel the surgeon cut into your gums, remove part of your jawbone and remove the innocent tooth that’s been with you for years? 

Great. Just what I needed—to feel sadness over parting with the detrimental bone.

The morning of the procedure, I woke up with feelings nearly identical to my last brush with anxiety. Last year after pitching and submitting to a bunch of agents, two emailed me the same day, requesting phone conversations to discuss representation. For whatever reason, I felt far more anxious about the phone calls than I had about pitching. What if I said the wrong thing? Or something stupid? Changed their minds mid-call? Though I anticipated positive results, I struggled to sleep the night before and woke up trembling in a giddy pre-heart-attack-like buzz. Just like tooth day.

The extraction went smoothly. I was in the operating chair for less than an hour and on my sofa, decked out in frozen peas shortly after. The doc was right: I simply fell asleep then woke up, groggy and relieved with the procedure behind me.

Over the next few days, it struck me that we’re often the most fearful before something positive happens. I’m not talking about the fear we rely on for safety, but the angst that comes with growth. Perhaps I wasn’t simply nervous about talking to agents, but landing one. Afraid of success. Of growing out of the comfort zone called “newbie” I’d been longing with my whole heart to grow past. Of measuring up to new status.

Sitting down in the dental chair was much like picking up that phone. I was anxious, but buckled down to do what I trusted was right. I took one step at a time, guided with my instincts, relied on support from others and knew that if I just kept going, all would pan out fine. You’re going to be fine. Just breathe. This is good. I didn’t bottle my feelings up, but shared, respected and coped with them. And both cases, I’m grateful to say, turned out well.

So perhaps I have grown up. Even so, I’m glad I can still connect with the fearful child I used to be. She’s as important as the adult I’m becoming.

I suppose if I learned anything from my tooth ordeal it’s this: Anxiety can be a very selfish state, if we allow it to consume us. And fixating on fear only fuels it. If we accept angst as part of the deal, part of the price we pay for growth and success, we become more empathetic, better friends and more likely to plow through ceilings to reach our goals. Oh, and little beats frozen peas for jaw pain.

My Jaw-Pain BFF

Fabulous related posts:

Marcy Kennedy: Do You Worry You Won’t Succeed as a Writer?
Tameri Etherton: Size Doesn’t Matter
Surgery Music: Going Under the Knife: Are You Afraid of Anesthesia?

Are you an anesthesia or something-else phobe? How do you manage anxiety? What have you learned through coping?

Leave a comment

51 Comments

  1. I am a naturally calm person in a lot of ways – but health issues in my early 20s brought with them a lot more anxious nature than I was used to. Like, having small anxiety attacks around lots of people, or if I felt trapped.

    I’m doing better, but I’ve retained some of that nature. I’m the image of calm in crisis, but when there is time to sit and dwell on possibility, oh my…bring on the nerves.

    Reply
    • I can relate to that, Amber. Congrats on moving forward. Learning to cope with anxiety is fantastic for artists in particular, I think, as we grow more empathetic and able to write about others’ difficult times.

      Reply
  2. I like your positive take on managing anxiety and it is so true we often become anxious over matters with potentially positive outcomes. Btw, You look a peace with your frozen peas 🙂

    Reply
  3. Fear of failure–or perhaps success?–is common among writers. Years ago, one of my writers submitted pages of her recently completed novel (which I thought excellent) to a writers’ conference for an advance read. The work won an award, and an agent at the conference asked to see the entire manuscript. Subsequently the agent rejected it. My writer never submitted it again.

    Reply
    • Wow. Some amount of fear is natural and can be positive, but when it’s debilitating… Sad story. It reminds me of an exercise from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” that has you complete the statement: “If I weren’t afraid of ________, I would _______________.” Self honesty is so key.

      Reply
  4. Marc Schuster

     /  August 9, 2012

    It’s funny — I get a little weirded out by the idea of going under general anesthesia as well. For me, it’s mainly an existential issue. I think I’ve gone under twice, and both times, it was exactly as you describe: I went out and woke up what felt like a split-second later, and the surgery was over. Then I started obsessing over what it all meant — specifically, the idea that my mind could be turned off like a television or any other household appliance! From there, my mind (the one that had been turned off) raced with a myriad of questions: What is the brain? What is consciousness? What does it mean to be human? It can all be so overwhelming, and your advice above is probably the best advice: Just breathe!

    Reply
    • Exactly! I hate the idea that someone can “steal” our brains and thoughts away in seconds. It draws up all sorts of daunting “what if”s… Focusing on breathing—great advice. 🙂

      Reply
  5. I don’t think there’s a human being on this earth who’s not afraid of a general anaesthetic and unfortunately over the last two years, I’ve had many with another in the pipeline. The worst part is the needle going into the back of the hand. I swear it’s worse than anything. I have small, slim hands, boney hands and I cry each and every time. The poor anaesthetist winces when he sees me on the table. Three times now I’ve thanked them in recovery for not killing me which makes them laugh.

    But before every surgery I’ve told my nearest and dearest I love them, that I’ve had a wonderful life and I regret nothing in case I meet my maker and never see them again. Awful, each and every single time.

    I so get this post, August. Good work, honey.

    Reply
  6. Thanks for the courage to share a few of your innermost feelings and anxieties…being vulnerable somehow helps you to become a much stronger individual when dealing with future trials and tribulations…btw, I am starting to feel a slight twinge in my upper right jawbone and getting just a little anxious that I may have to sit in that proverbial hot seat for a thorough inspection…the last time that happened I came home with a crown, but somehow did not feel like a king…more like a pauper after I saw my share of the co-pay…all I can say is…”dental insurance sucks”.

    Reply
  7. August,
    This is exactly what I needed to read today because it is exactly what I am going through. I’m waiting for the final answer on my first book. It is long overdue and yes, my nights seem even shorter because I am not sleeping well at all. Even though I know I did my very best for that moment in time, I have looked at the material and found a few things that I would have wrote another way if given the chance. The answer is over due. I received a letter that said by the end of July and since then I have heard nothing.
    It is like going to the dentist, which I don’t like either. In one way, I want to have nice clean and white teeth and the other looks at the grinding of the machine and the pain that comes with insuring that your teeth look great.
    Reading your post today made me aware of my own fear of succeeding, even though that is what I want to do, to succeed. So, I am going to sit back and concentrate on my other articles and continue supporting those people whom I love in the writing community and have patient and wait. It is not going to be easy, but I am going to let go of this anxiety my reaching out to others.
    Thank you for a wonderful post that came just at the right time for me.
    Ciao,
    Patricia

    Reply
    • I admire your honesty and openness, Patricia, and wouldn’t be surprised if many writers relate to your scenario. If my post helped you turn a light switch on, I’m touched and thrilled. 🙂 You’re succeeding already by taking these important steps, IMO. Go get ’em, okay? And please keep me posted.

      Reply
  8. What a helpful concept: “we’re often the most fearful before something positive happens.” I never thought about it that way.

    As for having more anxiety about the phone call than the pitch, that makes perfect sense to me. As writers, we feel more of a sense of control (even if a false sense) when we have the ability to delelte, reword, send a draft to a trust friend, etc. A conversation is such quick back and forth. AND, there’s no way to know if the other person remembers the right words, etc. Hard stuff for a writer!

    Good luck with that piece. And so glad the dental work is behind. ANYONE would be anxious about that! Yikes.

    Reply
  9. Shannon Esposito

     /  August 9, 2012

    Awe, so glad the surgery went well! Hope you’re eating more than ice cream by now 🙂
    My husband freaks out everytime I have to go under (and it’s been alot recently because of my lower back problems) because I take a long time to come out of anesthesia. Strangely, I don’t get anxious about this. But, I have learned that my anxiety in other situations comes from a lack of percieved control. My fear of flying, which I can say my recent trip to the Grand Canyon has wiped away, was all about feeling out of control of my situation. I can’t really explain it, but I “let go” on my last flight. I let go of the idea that I was in control of anything and just sat there, looking at the clouds. It was so freeing. I wish I could bottle it. Or even explain it….lol.

    Reply
    • I felt similarly when I swam—well floated and doggie paddled—for the first time. Good for you for taking the leap, Shannon! So happy to hear that your Grand Canyon trip was so therapeutic for you.

      Reply
  10. Glad your procedure went smoothly. I’m like you–I don’t like the thought of going under anesthesia. Which is why I suppose there are no face lifts in my future. 🙂

    Reply
  11. So happy everything went smoothly!
    I hear ya, I’m always anxious and nervous towards anything that I suspect could be physically painful. My best coping strategy is to self sooth. I do so by reminding myself that I’ve been through a lot and always come through with no issue. Not to mention, the pain is usually far less than anticipated. I remind myself that whatever it is, I can handle it and that by handling it now, I am likely avoiding more costly consequences later. Then I pull on my big girl panties and face the music. I am always still nervous but nerves don’t run the show…I do…
    Here’s to your continued smooth recovery!!!

    Reply
  12. Hi August, I swear pain is one of the best teachers, or at least it has been in my life. I have had a history of back trouble, particularly sciatica and I have never taken pain meds for it. My reasoning is that the body creates pain for a reason. To tell you “don’t do that, we’re working here to repair whats gone wrong.” So once while toughing out a particular bad spell, it became very clear that when your are in that deep pain — there is no time to be selfish, there is no time to be anything else but completely present and in the moment. And luckily if the pain gets too intense, your body is kind and simply allows you to pass out naturally. So glad you have come through this episode with a deeper understanding of yourself and your strengths.

    Reply
    • I love your take on pain, tolerance and healing, Rachel. We definitely tend to mask pain in our culture—a big ‘ol bandaid on a deeper problem. Such wise words. Thank you!

      Reply
  13. The oral surgeon took one look at my x-rays and refused to do the surgery unless I had it done at the hospital under full anesthesia. That’s how badly impacted mine were…. I remember watching the anesthesiologist starting the IV and wondering how long it would be before I was out. I never even finished the thought! To me, the slow sensation of regaining my senses one at a time was the strangest part of the procedure.

    Nerves and fear serve a good purpose, but only if we don’t let them control us. I think you’ve got a great attitude on dealing with them. 🙂

    Reply
  14. I hope this means you are on the road to recovery. Last year, I had some anxiety over a small procedure, because I had to be intubated. I didn’t realize that was part of the deal. I focused so much on that part of the situation (due to something that happened to my late husband) that I didn’t focus on the things that mattered like how to care for my toddler after the procedure. I love those life lessons.

    Reply
  15. Awww! Hope you’re feeling better August! I used to suffer from horrible anxiety. Endured agent calls and meetings like you said with my heart racing, fearing I was going to say the wrong thing and screw it all up. But I guess by “growing up” (and doing lots of yoga and meditation) I’ve realized that almost nothing’s ever as bad as we think it will be. We’re artists so naturally our minds create elaborate scenarios but the phrase I use now whenever I feel anxiety come on is, “It’s just a rope.” (After the old tale of a man fearing a snake in the corner when in reality, it turned out to just be a rope) And… I breath 🙂

    Reply
  16. I am having more anxiety over my colonoscopy than my heart surgery!
    I have had my wisdom teeth out and it led me to Danny so it was all good. I hope you are feeling better soon!

    Reply
    • Aw… Colonoscopy does not sound like fun. Did you say heart surgery? Sheesh. I’d love to hear that wisdom tooth love story, Susie. 🙂 And I’ll be sending you healthy, happy, calm and courageous vibes for your procedure.

      Reply
      • To be honest I am not worried about the procedure at all. I had one once when I was in my 20’s back when they used no anesthesia and a garden hose. Not sure how I got there…. it was the beginning of an ulcer I think.
        I am not looking forward to starving for a day that’s all! The wisdom teeth story is on my blog.
        http://susielindau.com/2011/05/21/oprah-and-me/

  17. I’m so happy everything turned out well for you, August! Anxiety can be helpful at times, but you’re right. It is very selfish and if not harnessed right can cause many problems. I hope you are well on your way to being 100% again and won’t have to undergo anymore tooth extractions, or surgery of any kind for that matter. Big hugs to you. Thanks for including me in your related links!

    Reply
  18. LOL. I always cringe when there’s a dentist scene in a film. Everyone has a wisdom tooth story 🙂 When I had mine done I walk back through Leeds city center, numb and totally unaware I was drooling blood all over me! The next day my jaw had clamped itself shut and it took months to get it working properly again. On the plus side, my friends commented on how quiet I’d got!

    Hope your’s works out better 🙂

    Cheers

    Reply
    • Argh! Nigel! That might be the Papa Bear of all wisdom teeth stories. Sounds like the makings for a post, not that you need more ideas. 🙂

      Reply
  19. Hmm, I found out in my early 40’s that I had picked up through heredity, panic & anxiety. Took that long to manifest itself. It’s been interesting. Mostly affects me in a fear of flying situation. I’ve only flown twice since 1998.

    Reply
  20. Glad you’re doing okay. You make a good point. We are better off if we accept our issues. I have learned in life that it’s much healthier than using denial.

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  21. I love frozen peas – apart from eating they have soothed countless sprains, bumps and stings.

    Reply
  22. So glad you are feeling better. Tooth pain is no small issue. Isn’t it funny all the drama we build up around dentist visits? I don’t tend to panic about much beyond speaking to or in front of people. But I recall a full on panic attack when I dropped into the water for my diver’s certification. The funny thing was, I had done it many times before. I don’t know what had me panicking that time. I thought i couldn’t breath. Crazy.

    Reply
  23. Raani York

     /  August 11, 2012

    I’m happy you’re feeling better, August!! I heard a lot of people do have issues with going to the dentist. In fact I do have a cousin who had a mouth full of emptiness and a couple brown leftovers as teeth because he was so paralized. I saw him yesterday after a few months. I had heard he went to the dentist and he does like smiling much easier now.
    I do understand and try to feel with people who share that fear. Fortunately I don’t have it – but never had the slightest problems with my teeth either. To me the annual dentist visit means, walking in, hopping onto the chair, check, clean, hopping off, saying good bye and paying the bill. That’s it… Thank God!

    But I do suffer yes… from Arachnophobia… *sigh* How did I cope with it? Not at all – I’m too scared – just a couple minutes ago I killed one of these poor animals, about 1/4 inch in length and it seemed like “flat” is not enough – it needed to be “flatter” for me to be sure it’s out of my mind… *sigh*

    I wish I had the strength to deal with that fear!!

    Reply
  24. Kourtney Heintz

     /  August 11, 2012

    I’m still scared of the dentist. I don’t like pain in my mouth. I had two impacted wisdom teeth out years ago and it was quite an ordeal. You were really brave to get it over with so quickly. 🙂 I love how you took a dental issue and applied it to the much bigger picture of life and shared such great insight with us. You’re an amazing writer!

    Reply
  25. We always conger the worst since while life is black and white our imagination is Kodachrome. Wait a minute. I should write a song about that.

    Reply
  26. I was fascinated reading your post and the comments august. Thanks so much for opening up the topic. Anaesthesia doesn’t bother me. nor dentists nor flying. Speaking in front of a crowd? Love it. when I examine my anxiety it’s around my performance, appearance or behavior. and as I think about it, I think it’s about my sense that I must be in control of me. I lose sleep when I’ve messed up or have to face something or someone. Hmmm. lots to think about. thanks so much for the opportunity to think.

    Reply
  27. A bit late to the party here, but had to tell you that this is an awesome post. It is great that you don’t try to suppress the feelings, but also don’t let them stop you. And, Shannon, I’m thrilled to hear that you’ve let go of the last of the fear of flying. That is terrific!

    My phobia is heights. It had gotten a lot better years ago, but is getting worse again because I have vertigo. Got up on my roof with my brother to do some repairs last fall, and almost ended up sleeping up there that night. I had the darnedest time getting myself onto that bloody ladder to climb down.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! And for the frozen peas suggestion 🙂

    Reply
  28. I’m so glad your dental work went okay, and I love this post 🙂 (I’m really late about reading it, but I just had to comment anyway.)

    I struggle with anxiety and fear when it comes to anything involving pain. I seem to have one of the world’s lowest tolerances for pain. Unfortunately for me, I also have a sensitive vagus nerve, which means that when I see blood, experience pain, think about blood/pain/medical procedures, or experience an extreme state of stress, I faint. It’s incredibly embarrassing to not be able to control your body (especially if it happens around someone who thinks you can control it if you want to), and it makes every medical situation a trial for me, the medical personnel, and whoever I need to bring with me to drive me home afterward. So far, all the techniques I’ve tried to avoid fainting haven’t worked. So I push through it, knowing–as you said–that things will be better on the other side.

    P.S. Thanks for the shout-out 🙂

    Reply
    • My sister has reactions similar to yours. She nearly faints at the sight of dark bruises. I suppose all sensitivities have their silver linings—for writers especially. Even so, they are tough to manage. Knowing that we’re not alone in our fears helps. Thanks for that!

      Reply
  29. How do you manage to look so lovely with peas on your jaw? lol.

    Before the only real dental work I’ve ever had, I was given a valium, so that pretty much took care of any anxiety I may have felt. I have struggled with anxiety in the past (and still do at times) so I know how uncomfortable it is. Glad everything went okay.

    Reply
  30. Sorry for the late comment August. We must be leading parallel lives or something- I’m going to be booking an appointment with the maxillo-facial to have 2(YES, TWO) impacted wisdoms extracted pretty soon. Oh the joy…
    I love what you say about how we are the most fearful just before something positive happens. I guess that’s the moment that decides whether we succeed or not. Many people give up at that point. I will keep that in mind next time I feel anxious about moving forward-which is nearly always! LOL. Awesome stuff, as usual!

    Ps. Hope the gums have healed and you’re doing okay, much love! 🙂

    Reply
  31. Francesca

     /  March 12, 2014

    I sympathize with your ordeal – wisdom teeth removal brought on severe anxiety for me, and I ended up needing more treatment later for the anxiety caused! The anxiety itself was so much worse than the procedure.
    I will say though that the quote you used doesn’t quite fit – C. S. Lewis is saying he lost his fear of being childish. He felt the freedom to be childish. He also threw away his desire to be a “grown-up”. So it is a bit of a play on the idea of throwing away childish things. He’s saying he doesn’t worry about being or acting grown up – now that he is grown up, he is free to act childlike if he wishes. He’s not afraid of what others think.

    Reply
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