Dentist Visit Fear? The Pain Is All in Your Head

Hate it once, dread it more knowing we have to face it again. Hate the dentist? It could be your memory playing a psychological trick on you. That was the finding from new research that examined whether or not people ignore past negative experiences and instead focus on the positive when they anticipate repeating a bad experience. The researchers found that people remember unpleasant experiences as being harsher if they expect to repeat it. Maybe we hate going to the dentist, because we know someday we’ll have to go back.

There were seven separate experiments performed; in one, subjects were exposed to the irritating sound of a vacuum cleaner for 10 minutes and later asked to rate how irritating it was on a scale of “Not at all uncomfortable” (one) to “Extremely Uncomfortable” (nine). The people who were told that they would have to listen to the noise again soon rated their experience as being more irritating.

Five other experiments involved people performing a boring task, such as moving a circle on a computer screen from one side to the other over and over, and later asking them to rate it on a scale of one to nine based on increasing dislike. Subjects rated the boring task higher if they believed they would have to repeat it.

Another experiment involved women with regular menstrual cycles rating how long and how painful their last period was and  the women who had their next period coming up soon rated their last menstrual period as being more painful.

The study’s authors concluded that people alter their memory of bad experiences “to steel themselves against future harm.” A psychological mechanism such as bracing could limit someone’s actual distress when they undergo that negative experience again.

So, next time you find yourself cringing over your last trip to the dentist, remember that it might be your mind’s way of preparing you for the next one.

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