Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Dentist?
Where Dental Phobia Comes From and What We Can Do
Dentistry has historically gotten a bad rap, this much we know. There is a world of jokes out there about the pain (mental, physical, financial) that a dental visit can cause. For some, however, the thought of a dentist isn’t just unfunny. It can spark anywhere from mild anxiety to deep rooted, uncontrolled fear, preventing many from seeking the dental care so crucial to their overall health. Let’s look at some things that can cause dental phobias – known also as odontophobia – and some tips that may help allay these fears.
Up to 20 percent of the population experiences some level of dental anxiety, with five to eight percent so afraid that they avoid going altogether, according to the Dental Fears Research Clinic at the University of Washington. Symptoms of odontophobia can include tension, trouble sleeping, increasing nervousness, panic attacks, feeling physically ill and the strong urge to cry, all just at the thought of the dentist. There are, naturally, a variety of reasons why people become afraid of the dentist, and everyone is a little different. Some common causes are:
Bad Experience: This is probably the most common cause, and completely understandable. We all learn from our experiences, and it’s not a big leap from a negative, painful dental visit to the belief that all visits will be that way.
Fear of pain and discomfort: Our body’s instinct is to protect itself. Whether you’re considering something that’s just uncomfortable (leaning back in the chair, breathing through your nose, irritating or loud equipment noises), or facing the prospect of potentially painful shots and treatment, a dental visit can definitely trigger that response. This fear is often a self-fulfilling prophecy – the longer you avoid going to a dentist, the more likely you are to require invasive and potentially uncomfortable treatment.
Fear of the unknown: The root of many, if not most, human problems – if you don’t understand something, aren’t familiar with it, it’s pretty hard to trust. Foreign dental equipment, technical language and unfamiliar procedures can all elicit this fear.
Feeling out of control and helpless: Laying back in a chair while a relative stranger performs actions you can’t see in one of the most intimate areas of your body can be intense. It’s not hard to see why this would feel invasive to some; you’re in a very vulnerable position and placing your trust in someone else completely. This fear can be especially difficult to manage in victims of previous trauma or abuse.
Fear by association: Again, dentists get a bad rap. Prevalent jokes, stories and images that paint the dentist as a horrible experience to be suffered through reinforce our notions that this is something to fear.
Like the cause, the solution is going to be different for everyone. Prevention is critical; like every fear, odontophobia needs to be faced head-on. If you hate going to the dentist but are hyper-vigilant in your preventive care, you will eliminate the need for more visits in the future, thereby removing the more threatening appointments that would otherwise loom on the horizon. Here are some tips to make those visits more bearable:
Finding the right dentist: This may sound obvious but it is absolutely, 100% the most important consideration. If you are facing a dental fear, you want a dentist who will understand and respect the obstacle you’re trying to overcome. You are looking for a gentle provider who will explain to you exactly what is going on every step of the way and frequently ask your permission to continue whatever procedure you are receiving. You want someone who is open to conversation and questions. Above all you want someone you can trust. There are many providers out there who fit this bill, and in many areas you can find clinics that are specifically dedicated to patients with odontophobia.
Taking control: This goes hand in hand with finding the right dentist. Start with the phone call – a very tough call to make. Explain your situation, and for those dealing with extreme fear, ask to schedule a consultation first. Any dentist who is right for you will be willing to sit down and talk to you before doing anything else. Once there, ask questions. LOTS of questions. Ruminate on the specifics of your fear and then get your dentist to explain those aspects of treatment to you until you feel more comfortable. Ask to see or hold the equipment that will be used to familiarize yourself. Develop signals with your dentist so you know you can stop a procedure whenever you need to, and plan on timed breaks for more extensive treatment.
Relaxation techniques: Common relaxation techniques can be very useful during a dental visit. Deep, rhythmic, SLOW breathing will help trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and encourage a relaxation response. You can also employ a technique called progressive muscle relaxation, where you contract and relax each of your muscles in turn. Meditation before and during can also help: not only does it promote relaxation, but placing yourself in a different situation mentally can help distance you from your physical reality.
Distraction: When in the chair, anything that distracts you from the situation is a good thing. Bring music that you like and pop in your ear buds – not only will this distract you but it conveniently drowns out some of those not so pleasant sounds. Bring a stress ball to squeeze or something to fiddle with if you tend to have overactive hands when you’re nervous. Maybe find a dentist with a television in the treatment room. Find the thing that will capture your attention, and make sure you have it with you.
Cognitive Techniques: Prior to your appointment, try visualization techniques to imagine yourself getting through the appointment successfully and without fear. Use cognitive restructuring (consciously identifying negative thought patterns, then rationally disputing them and reimagining them as positive ones) and optimism to buoy yourself up before you even walk through the door. These mental exercises take practice and determination, but can be life savers.
Bring a buddy: There’s safety in numbers. Have someone you trust come with you, especially on that first visit – the safer you feel, the easier it will be to face your fear.
Pharmacological Solutions: We will always recommend trying a natural approach first. If it’s something that can be conquered mentally, that is a far better option than a chemical one. Unfortunately sometimes it’s just not possible, and when that’s the case there are alternatives. Anti-anxiety medication, anesthesia and even full sedation are all utilized by dentists to promote the level of relaxation necessary to complete the procedure. If you get to this point, talk to your dentist about potential side effects and which course of treatment is right for you.
If none of the above tips work, or if even starting down that road is too much to bear, you may need to see your psychologist before you find a dentist. Whichever professional you see first, do whatever you can to take that first step! It’s the best thing you can do, for all aspects of your health.