Going to the dentist may not be what you’d call “fun.” Often, it’s uncomfortable to have someone’s hands and loud tools in your mouth. Drilling and suctioning are rarely enjoyable experiences. There’s the cold spray of water, the chapped lips, the sharp hook used to scrape tartar away from your teeth and the heavy protective bib designed to shield you from radiation during x-rays. Moreover, let’s not forget those awkward attempts at answering your dentist’s questions while their hands are in your mouth.
Nonetheless, most of us grin and bear our annual dental visits because they are generally a positive experience. Usually, the staff are kind, and have our best interests at heart. Any pain we might experience is rare and mitigated with anesthetic. And the knowledge that regular dental visits are an important part of maintaining health is worth dealing with a small amount of discomfort.
But if the prospect of visiting a dentist has your teeth chattering, you certainly aren’t alone. In fact, 5 to 8 percent of Americans are so afraid of going to the dentist that they avoid it altogether, says a recent study by the Dental Fears Research Clinic. A full 20 percent of Americans have enough anxiety about going to the dentist that they only go when absolutely necessary.
For people with severe dentophobia (fear of dental work), the fright of going to the dentist provokes a fight-or-flight response. In essence, this person responds as if their life is in danger. Asking a dentophobe to get into a dental chair and sit through an exam is akin to pointing a gun at their head.
While not all people who experience anxiety over going to the dentist are at this extreme end of the spectrum, their anxiety is serious enough that they will avoid going at all. This allows problems such as decay, gum disease or tooth damage to continue unchecked. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as their long-overdue dental visits reveal serious problems and a need for frightening or potentially painful procedures. The anxiety grows, and the problems persist without a dentist’s intervention.
Overcoming this fear isn’t only important in terms of your own health; it’s important for your children’s health as well. Research shows that up to 20 percent of children are afraid of the dentist, and one of the primary factors leading to this fear is whether parents or guardians are afraid. Children with parents who have dental anxiety are twice as likely to have it themselves. It’s worth it to overcome your fear if for no other reason than to avoid passing it along to your kids.
While overcoming fear of the dentist, can be a difficult process, it’s not impossible. More than ever, those working in dental practices are skilled at treating dental phobia in adults and children. They know how to deal with dental anxiety, and they make it a priority to help patients be more comfortable in the dental chair, for the benefit of their smiles and overall health.
Why Are People Afraid of the Dentist?
Going to the dentist may set your teeth on edge for a number of reasons.
First, there’s the lack of control. You’re lying prone in a reclined chair, and someone’s hands are in your mouth, preventing you from speaking or objecting. For patients who have experienced trauma in which lack of control played a role — for instance, an abusive childhood — these feelings may be even more intense.
Then there’s our biological programming. Research into dentophobia has revealed that, as a matter of survival, humans are biologically wired to protect their air passages. Our ancestors who protected their airways were more likely to remain alive. Since the mouth is one of the most vulnerable parts of the body — we use it to eat and breathe, primal needs for our survival — our instinct is, naturally, to avoid letting someone in there. For people with an extreme fear, the idea of a dental visit can provoke that fight-or-flight response.
Then there are the sharp metal instruments, machines that make loud whirring noises and the potential for pain. Research shows that the dental setting and equipment are a significant source of fear, particularly with children, who may find the environment scary or unsettling.
Speaking of equipment, needles are a major source of fear for many patients. Fear of needles and shots actually ranked 6th in a recent Gallup poll of Americans’ top 10 fears. If you’re among this group, the possibility that you might be faced with a needle is enough to send you running with your tail between your legs.
The cruel irony is that if it’s been a while since you’ve been to the dentist, your teeth may be in bad shape, so your chance of experiencing pain from procedures is even higher.
Dental anxiety also may stem from childhood, when frightening or painful experiences with dentists may have occurred — not enough anesthetic or the accidental scrape of a gum, for example. Or it could simply be a matter of parents passing their fears down to their children. Even a casual, teasing comment from a peer or parent — “the dentist will pull your teeth!” [JMS1]— could create a lifetime of unreasonable fears for a child.
Dentists and their staff can play a major role in creating fears, too. Bad manners, poor chairside skills, poor ethics, lack of training or patience with those who are already nervous all can be disastrous in terms of creating or worsening patients’ fears.
Others may simply have general anxiety disorders, and for these people, the fear of the unknown may cause them to avoid the dentist. It’s possible that what the patient is afraid of isn’t so much about dentistry as it is something else. Those with social anxiety, fear of being around germs, fear of leaving home or even an extra-sensitive gag reflex might be reasons to avoid the dentist.
Whatever the root cause of the fear, you need to tackle the problem. The condition of your teeth likely is affecting your self-esteem, not to mention pain from possible cavities, cracks or gum disease. Dental anxiety can cause significant stress, even causing insomnia. More importantly, by avoiding the dentist, you could be putting your overall health in jeopardy. Gum disease is a serious infection that may contribute to heart disease, stroke and diabetes, as well as other problems.
12 Tips for Fighting Your Fear of the Dentist’s Chair
If getting yourself or a loved one to the dentist is like, well, pulling teeth, try these strategies for overcoming that fear.
Start by admitting it’s a problem: Many people who are afraid of going to the dentist make excuses — to themselves and others — about why they don’t go. They complain that they don’t like their dentists, are too busy and can’t find the time or don’t have the money to go. But, like anything else, you can’t fix a problem until you first admit that a problem exists. Try as best you can to pinpoint where the fear originated: Are you afraid of needles, and need to know how to overcome fear of dental injections? Do you get a sore back in the dentist’s chair? Are you worried you won’t be able to breathe? Did you have a bad experience at the dentist when you were young? You can’t get over a fear until you know the nature of it.
- Brush up on good dentists in your area: Ask for recommendations from friends and family members, particularly those who may have had fears previously and have overcome them. Read reviews of their practice. You might even focus your search on practices who clearly know how to deal with dental anxiety. It doesn’t hurt to look for a dentist who’s funny, either:A study published in the European Journal of Oral Science revealed that humor can significantly reduce dental fear. (Just make sure your dentist’s sense of humor is one you appreciate, or no one will be laughing.)
- Be honest about your fears: Most dentists, including those at Specialized Dentistry of New Jersey, want more than anything for you to receive the care you need. It starts by getting you into the office. When you schedule the appointment, mention that you have anxiety about this, and ask if you can meet with the dentist just to talk. This will reveal a lot about how your dentist will attend to your needs. Look for a dentist that listens without judgment and cares enough to figure out how to overcome fear of dental procedures. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” is not an appropriate response because it belittles you and your fears, which may only worsen the problem and cause you to further avoid dentists.
- Get accustomed to the tools: A tray full of unfamiliar-looking, sharp metal tools can be enough to send you running. What may ease your fear is to have your dentist give you a little “meet-and-greet” time with the tools. Ask if you can hold them while he or she explains what each one does. This may help them to seem less scary and intimidating.
- Be sure that you are in control: Your dentist should frequently explain what’s about to happen and how it will feel, then ask for your permission before continuing. Before any work is done, develop a method for communicating with your dentist, even when you aren’t able to talk — nonverbal signals to indicate when something is provoking your fear or causing pain or discomfort, so that the dentist knows to stop. Don’t push yourself to do anything that’s distressing to you — this will only add to the bad associations you have with dental work.
- Take breaks: A good dentist will take time for breaks, allowing you to ease into the process. You should also feel free to ask for a break at any time if you need to compose yourself.
- Bring someone with you: Bringing someone you trust, someone who isn’t afraid of dentists, to sit with you during your exam might put you at ease. Plus, that person can speak for you in times when you can’t, adding to your control of the situation.
- Take precautions to reduce discomfort: If you find the dental chair uncomfortable, ask if your dentist can examine you in a seated, rather than reclining, position. If you breathe mostly through your mouth and worry that you’ll struggle for air, bring nasal strips, which open up the nasal. Afraid of dental injections? Talk to your dentist about whether you can have a topical anesthetic before receiving shots, to alleviate the pain. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas), oral sedatives or other options may be available. For those with sensitive gag reflexes or a fear of being choked, the x-rays may be your concern. Talk to your dentist about the possibility of panoramic x-rays, which are noninvasive. Many options are available to you that could take the discomfort out of the process, so have a frank conversation with your dentist about how you two can make the dental visit work.
- Distract yourself: Sometimes the sounds of drills and suction tubes unnerve patients. Wear earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones to reduce or eliminate these frightening sounds. Many dental offices offer on-demand movies and TV programs for patients, shown on portable or ceiling-mounted TV screens. Alternatively, bring your smartphone or iPod and some earbuds so you can listen to music. These distractions can help take your mind off what’s happening around you and keep the setting from feeling cold and clinical.
- Try techniques for relaxation: Meditation, prayer, visualizations and controlled breathing techniques can make a big difference in helping you to relax. For example, the Dental Fears Research Clinic suggests taking a big breath, holding it and then letting it out very slowly. This helps to slow your heartbeat, relaxing you.
- Pay attention to your dentist’s demeanor: Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t right, regardless of the dentist’s talent, experience or personality. Pay attention to your gut. A positive relationship is crucial for overcoming your fear of the dentist. If something doesn’t feel right, or if the dentist (or anyone on staff) seems impatient about your fears or unwilling to slow things down, move on. Many dental offices now take great pains to make their offices friendly to dentophobic patients. Many, for example, removing visual cues that could provoke fear by offering non-clinical-looking dental chairs or removing their lab coats. Take the time to find the dentist who’s right for you.
- Remember that slow dental work is better than none: It may take you a period of weeks or months to complete the dental work you need. This is OK. Don’t let this stop you from starting. Take as long as you need while you work toward overcoming your fear and getting treatment. Doing a little bit at a time in order to keep your fears at bay is better than doing nothing at all.
- Take good care of your teeth: This is the best tip of all for overcoming dental anxiety. While you’d expect those with dental anxiety to work hard to protect their teeth in order to avoid going to the dentist, sometimes that’s not the case. Brush well, eat right and floss daily, and it’s likely that your next dental visit won’t be nearly as scary.
Extracting Your Kids’ Fears
When it comes to kids, make it a priority to set the right example. Try these strategies to improve how your child views dental visits:
- Be positive: While you may still be learning how to deal with your dental anxiety, talking about it with your child, or with others in front of your child, only exacerbates the issue. Focus on speaking positively about dentists and their staffs. Additionally, resist any urges to talk about procedures such as fillings or extractions. It’s likely that a young child won’t experience these procedures, so encouraging them to worry about it does no good.
- Start early: Bring your child to the dentist as soon as they have baby teeth. This helps to make them comfortable with dentists and their offices.
- Engage in play: Practice playing dentist and patient with your child. Pretend to clean the teeth and check for cavities. Describe what sensations a child can expect — vibrations, bright lights, the taste of fluoride, etc. This gives your child a sense of control and predictability, which may ease fears.
- Small rewards: Praise and small tangible tokens, such a stickers or temporary tattoos — can be big motivators for kids to take good care of their teeth and regularly go to the dentist.
The bottom line? Be sure to see a dentist who knows how to treat patients with dental anxiety. Here at Specialized Dentistry of New Jersey, you can feel free to contact us at any time to schedule a first consultation and discuss your fears about dental work. We strive to ensure that you’re absolutely comfortable before having any exams or procedures done.
If you still don’t think you’re able to go to the dentist, your fear may be too strong to overcome on your own. It might be a good idea to talk to a psychologist trained to deal with phobias and fears.
Oral health is too important to let your fear get in the way. Let the staff at Specialized Dentistry of New Jersey know how we can help.