Fear & Loathing at the Dentist: What I did In The Chair & What You Can Do On The Bike

Yesterday I had one of my back molars sawn in half and then yanked out with pliers.

This came at day 3 of the current illness I've got — body-aches, fever, headaches, coughing blah, blah, blah. I went to the dentist with a bad toothache, knowing it wouldn't be good, she gave me options, I chose, and I came back in an hour to get it done.

So I was feeling terrible and weak already and I was going to get a big tooth taken out. The night before I'd thought of the people who have endured pain over time. People have tolerated incredible amounts of pain. From the after effects of stroke, to childbirth, to amputations while biting down on a leather strap, to ongoing chronic pain from accidents, to loss of life and cruelty. Not to mention people born with pain right from the word go. I guess I was doing this thinking to put my own situation in perspective and thereby lessen the perceived challenge. Reframing.

The Challenge
So what could be the challenge at the dentist? Well, they inject you with numbing stuff, so there's no real physical pain involved (they even put numbing cream on before the injection so the injections don't even hurt). What that left for me was fear and discomfort.

For me, the fear comes from lack of familiarity and also specifically trying circumstances. When someone is poking around trying to trigger pain spots or using a saw that you can hear inside your head even though you can't feel it, fear can take hold. For me, fear and anxiety is about strong concern for the future — what might happen. Those thoughts about “bad things” that might happen are then brought into and onto the present moment causing all sorts of barriers. This is us getting in our own way. That's not say that no fears are real, but when we hold them to the light they become just real circumstances. Fears exist in our fleeting thoughts. We need to bring them onto the table, examine them, accept them and then deal with their degree of “realness”.

The other challenge is the simple discomfort of it all. Of having someone poking around your mouth for ages, of having your head lower than your hips, mouth open wide with metal chopsticks being stuck in there, being told to open wider again, and having to taste horrid substances. The drilling and sawing noises don't help either. Now in any situation where better performance is the goal, there is likely be discomfort along the way because this is part of change, and change is a part of improvement. When we want to change from what we are, to what we want to be, we'll be at our learning edge, a new unfamiliar area, and this can be uncomfortable in different ways.

 It'll all be over before you know it...

It'll all be over before you know it...

Dealing with Fear & Discomfort: What I did In The Chair and What You Can Do On The Bike

Both fear and discomfort are realistic, significant challenges in any setting, be it sport, business or life. For simplicity let's apply this to performance cycling where we're in the red zone – specially where it's hurting like hell, we don't know if we can do it anymore, and we've just gotta get through this phase of the race.

  1. Accept – I chose to have the tooth pulled and I accepted that it could be uncomfortable. After making that decision I left no resistance or arguments in my mind.

    I choose my involvement in competitive cycling and I know it is a challenging sport, I'm prepared to truly accept these challenges and perform to my best within this context. While there may be reasons for my performance levels at any point, I make no excuses. At that point in time, my performance was what I was capable of.”

  2. Consciously Distract / Engage - I didn't think about the appointment before time — I didn't make it more that that it was, I occupied myself with other things. I did what I doing and paid attention to it, and not what was upcoming in the future.

    I have prepared myself for this upcoming race, there's nothing more I can do now. If there is, I'll deal with it and be done with it. If not, I'm prepared, and I'll do something else and give myself to it fully. I am not waiting, I am doing something else and when race time comes I am ready. I may lightly rehearse the race beforehand, but I will not ride my imagined race eternally looping over and over, before time”
  3. Task – I focussed on my job which was to lie still on the chair, keep my mouth open and communicate occasionally.

    Keep going at the required speed or stay on the wheel in front. Just that. Nothing else. Focus. Do it.”

  4. Self talk – I kept reminding myself to relax in the chair — like an ongoing mantra.

    I'm feeling my legs and lungs starting scream and I don't know if I can keep the current pace >> Relax, spin the pedals, compose my breathing, let the discomfort be there and then deal with it, hang in there, they'll all be suffering too.”


  5. Body awareness — I noticed when my body was tensing and subtly lifting out of the chair, and then I yielded back into it.

    Be relaxed on the bike right now. Feel the saddle, the pedals, the bars, and get back into my legs. Become one with the bike again. Let go of wasted tension and gripping in the rest of the body and put that energy in to the pedals — this may be hard to do under fatigue. Relax my face and smooth my breath.”

  6. Calm place — I closed my eyes and retreated from outside world – I went deeper into myself.

    To go deep into my capacity I will need to narrow my attention. Narrow it, but leave enough space to still “see” the race. A soft narrowing.”

  7. Breathing – I kept taking my attention back to my breath, and made it smooth.

    Optimise my breathing by making it smooth, more elongated and down into my lower torso, my shoulders are away from my ears.”

  8. Presence - I used all of these tactics above to bring myself back to the present moment and breath

    One little eye for in-race planning, the other big eye on focussing on efficiently moving the bike within the surrounding discomfort.”


 Famous for his ability to suffer, and for his classic self talk "shut up legs!", Jens Voigt must have been extremely skilled at performance mindset.

Famous for his ability to suffer, and for his classic self talk "shut up legs!", Jens Voigt must have been extremely skilled at performance mindset.

Ultimately all of these tactics are about not adding any psychological “noise” to the physical reality of the experience. To relax internally – mind, body, emotion – accept the experience, and act from there. Thoughts that we want to pay attention to, are ones that support the performance not impede it.