Dental Anxiety: Why Does It Happen & How We Resolve It
Millions of people experience a phenomenon known as dental anxiety, which can prevent them from seeking the essential oral health care everyone needs. Dental anxiety is a real problem, and if you suffer from it, you know how crippling it can be. While it seems like your anxiety is telling you to ignore the dentist, we want to encourage you to confront your fears with new knowledge and helpful tools to cope.
What is Dental Anxiety?
Dental anxiety is a state of apprehension, anxiety, or fear produced by the thought of an impending dental appointment. Some also call this condition dental fear or dental phobia. Odontophobia, literally fear of the dentist, is a recognized condition according to the World Health Organization (WHO). They estimate that fifteen to twenty percent of the population suffers from dental phobia or anxiety.
We often absentmindedly use these terms interchangeably, but in truth, “anxiety” and “phobia” indicate differing levels of severity. A person with mild dental anxiety may commit to consistent dental visits but exhibit signs of stress during the visit, such as high blood pressure, sweating, irritability, etc . . . However, someone with a severe dental phobia may suffer from panic attacks before even entering the dental office.
While many with mild dental anxiety may be able to rationalize and fight their fears in relation to which procedures they need to undergo, someone with severe phobia is too terrified to even call and schedule an appointment.
Who is Most Susceptible to Dental Anxiety?
Dental anxiety can affect anyone, but certain groups of people may be particularly susceptible. Past experiences, stories we hear, and the perceptions of our loved ones all shape the way we respond to the need for dental care.
Children often fear new experiences, and the sights and sounds of a dental office can be intimidating. A parents’ reaction to visiting the dentist plays a large role in the way the children perceive dentistry. Parents who suffer from dental anxiety are very likely to pass this on to their children.
Mental Health Disorders
Those who suffer from any mental health conditions have a greater risk for experiencing symptoms of dental anxiety too. Mental health disorders may cause people to assume the worst-case scenario or have extreme paranoia towards the unknown. This can lead them to fear and cause them to avoid situations in which they cannot be in control, such as dental visits.
Major Dental Treatment
It goes without saying that the more extensive the necessary dental treatment is, the more likely we are to feel anxiety regarding an upcoming appointment. Patients who have neglected dental care for some time may require considerable treatment on many teeth. The prospect of such long, invasive appointments can cause significant fear and/or anxiety.
Bad Experiences in the Past
When someone has a negative experience with a dentist, it can influence our view of every dentist, assuming all future encounters will be similar. Often, these bad experiences occurred during childhood, and the powerful memories can induce a lifetime of fear.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Dental Anxiety?
Those who suffer from dental anxiety often miss the warning signs because they can be subtle and seemingly unrelated to an upcoming dental visit. The manifestations of dental anxiety can be different for each individual. You may experience one or more of the following:
· Restlessness or trouble sleeping the night before a dental visit
· Feeling tearful or sad before, during or after a dental appointment
· Flushed cheeks
· Fast heartbeat
· Elevated blood pressure
· Sweating despite a cool room temperature
· Feeling angry or easily irritated
· Fainting or dizziness
· Consistently missing dental appointments or canceling them at the last minute
Why Do I Have Dental Anxiety?
It can be easy to understand why many suffer from dental anxiety, whether it is caused by a fear of the unknown or a past negative experience. But what exactly are dental phobic patients afraid of? The most common triggers are thoughts of pain, the injection of local anesthetic (the “shot”), or choking or gagging during the procedure. These are quite understandable fears, especially if you have experienced trauma or stress from these things in the past.
Aside from physical discomfort, some patients are more bothered by the sounds of a dental handpiece (the “drill”). Many others fear putting themselves in the control of another person because they lack a trusting relationship with their dentist. Patients have also shared with us a fear of being shamed or ridiculed for the poor state of their dental health. Any reason for fear is valid and overcomable once identified.
While there can be aspects of a dental visit that are relatively uncomfortable, the risk of a true injury is extremely rare. Research estimates that the risk of death during a dental procedure is about one in ten million!
Why is it Necessary to Cure or Treat Dental Anxiety?
The biggest problem with dental anxiety is that it often causes people to avoid essential dental care. This can become a vicious cycle in which avoiding the dentist increases anxiety, and increasing anxiety leads to greater avoidance of necessary care. The longer someone goes without dental care, the worse his or her oral health will become. The worsening state of dental diseases only increases dental fears and anxieties because of the knowledge that worsening disease requires more extensive treatment, thus heightening dental anxiety even further.
In addition to worsening dental disease, avoidance of the dentist makes you more unfamiliar with the sights, sounds, and other sensations of a dental visit, leading to an ever-worsening fear of the unknown. The longer you stay away, the more scary any dental procedure seems in your mind, and the more difficult it becomes to return to the dentist again.
We do not mean to imply that someone with severe dental phobia should simply power through and force themselves into receiving dental care. We understand the truly uncontrollable nature of some anxieties. If a patient is faced with a severe phobia, we advise you to seek professional help through therapy or medication so you can safely undergo necessary dental care.
Is There a Cure or Treatment for Dental Anxiety?
There are many treatments for dental anxiety, and there are many compassionate dentists who will work with you to help you overcome your fears and receive the essential oral health care you need. Because dental anxiety ranges widely in its causes, manifestations, and severity, the treatments also range widely. These can be as simple as meditation or prayer, or as detailed as single-step dental treatments utilizing sedative medications.
However, the first and most important step in overcoming dental anxiety is to build a trusting relationship with a dentist. By communicating your fears to a compassionate dentist, they will be able to work with you to address and manage your specific concerns. Here are some suggestions to find a dental practice that can help ease your anxiety.
An Attentive Team
A large part of dental anxiety comes from a fear of not being in control. By understanding the various aspects of your dental treatment and trusting that your dental team will allow you to take breaks or ask questions throughout the visit, you can regain some sense of control. Tell your dentist your concerns, and they should respond with kindness and a desire to help. Don’t be shy about asking questions regarding your treatment until you understand the procedure. Communication plays a very important role in fighting dental anxiety.
A Practice with Modern Technology
If you have not sought dental care in many years, you will be happy to learn that improved technology has made many dental procedures less invasive and more comfortable for patients! From the initial check-in process, to impressions and digital imaging, dentistry has modernized to make appointments shorter, safer and more enjoyable for our patients. Ask your dental practice what new procedures they’ve implemented since your last visit.
Options for Comfort and Convenience
Many dentists offer amenities to help anxious patients relax, including headphones with music to listen to or shows to watch, blankets, and neck pillows. Some dentists can also provide those requiring more than just physical comfort with sedative options. Laughing gas is a mild anxiety-reducer that does not have any lingering effects, allowing you to drive yourself to and from your dental appointment. Deeper sedation is also available, so that you sleep through your entire visit and remember almost nothing!
Dental Anxiety: Your Next Steps
If dental anxiety has kept you from seeing a dentist in recent years, your next step is finding a dentist you trust. Building trust can take time, but you can expedite that relationship building in a few ways. Read online reviews to understand the experience of other patients in your community. Schedule an interview with the dentist so you can assess your own impression of his or her compassion and communication before they provide you treatment. And ask questions about how this dentist handles patients with dental anxiety.
Don’t be afraid to start small. When you’re ready, schedule a relatively short and non-invasive procedure first, then work your way toward the more extensive treatments you need. We want every patient to receive the dental care he or she needs to be healthy for life!