And five practical tips for dealing with dental fear
In a list of fun ways to stay healthy, we appreciate that you won’t see ‘a trip to the dentist’. Fortunately, many of us understand that the benefits of seeing a dentist outweighs the discomforts. It’s one of life’s slightly unpleasant but necessary chores.
However, not everyone can just grin and bear it.
If avoiding the dentist because of dental anxiety sounds familiar, we’re here to reassure you that you’re not alone. We see patients every day who struggle with fear when they come in for dental treatment. Butterflies in the tummy, sweaty palms and a raised heart rate are all signs of dental anxiety. It’s very real and very common.
In fact, around one in seven Australians wrestle with dental anxiety. That’s around three and a half million people, which makes it one of the most prevailing anxiety disorders in the country.
Overcoming a fear starts by understanding it. And so in this article we want to help you understand:
- what dental anxiety is
- the difference between dental anxiety and dental phobia
- where dental fears come from
- why it’s important to deal with dental anxiety
- practical tips for calming your dental fears.
What is dental anxiety?
Dental anxiety is the fear or stress someone feels when thinking about dental treatment and/or while at the dentist. Like most fears, it sits on a spectrum. At its mildest, dental anxiety causes signs of stress—butterflies, faster heart rate and sweaty palms—while more severe symptoms can include panic attacks, fainting and uncharacteristic aggression.
The difference between dental anxiety and dental phobia
When chatting with patients and other dentists, dental anxiety and dental phobia are used interchangeably. They’re widely used to mean the same thing: an aversion to dentists and dental treatment.
But there is a difference.
Dental phobia refers to patients who completely avoid going to the dentist. According to one study, around one in three adults with dental phobia (also called ‘high dental fear’) have dodged the dentist’s chair for 10 years or more. In extreme cases, people with dental phobia choose to struggle with severe pain and discomfort of the mouth rather than seek the help of a dentist.
It’s not out of the ordinary for us to see people who have been self-treating for weeks or months, trying to keep the pain in check with painkillers or antibiotics rather than make an appointment. And in a handful of more extreme cases people have tried DIY dentistry and had a go at pulling their own tooth out.
Ignoring dental anxiety can lead to bigger problems
This is the danger of dental anxiety: it stops folks from getting essential (or even just routine) oral health care. Putting it off for years, especially if pain, tooth decay or disease are already present, leads to more severe consequences.
What are the causes of dental fear?
The reasons for experiencing dental fear can be as wide ranging as the symptoms. It may be a result of:
- a bad dental experience
- trust issues
- past trauma (anything from injury to assault)
- fear of pain
- health anxiety or hypochondria.
Interestingly, a 2010 study of 1,084 Australian adults found that the most ‘anxiety-eliciting dental situation’ is the cost of dental treatment. Sixty-four percent said price stressed them out the most, followed by a fear of needles/injections (46%) and painful or uncomfortable procedures (42.9%). Sound familiar? If so, you’ll find a remedy for this later in the article.
Negative personal experiences are usually at the heart of dental anxiety. But that’s not always the case. Dental anxiety can develop as a result of perceived fear. Even if all of your dental experiences have been smooth sailing, how close friends and family feel about going to the dentist can affect your own perception.
So can the weirdness of it all. Sitting in a reclined position, unsure of what the dentist is doing may make you feel uneasy. It’s a power imbalance that’s out of the everyday norm. As your dentist, we understand how this can put you on edge even when you know nothing bad is going to happen.
Understanding what’s causing your fear is important. Once you understand where it’s coming from, your dentist and dental assistants can start working with you to make sure your time in the chair is a more comfortable experience.
Five tips for overcoming dental anxiety
There are lots of things we can do so you feel more relaxed both in the run up to and during your appointment. Here are five techniques that we’ve tried with patients (or advised them to try before coming in) that can help keep stress levels in check.
1. Deep breathing
Anxiety and fear can cause shortness of breath, which may cause further panic and worry. Ahead of your appointment, find a quiet spot to sit or lay down and do a few minutes of deep breathing. To quiet your mind and stop your imagination from running away, spend the time focussing only on the in and out movement of your breath. If you feel anxiety rising again once you’re with your dentist, ask them if you can have a minute or two simply sitting in the chair and going through your deep breathing routine again.
2. See a friendly face
Ahead of your appointment, call the practice and ask if you can arrange to meet your dentist beforehand. This is especially useful if visiting a new dentist, as seeing a stranger could add to your anxiety. An earlier visit lets you get to know your dentist a little better. You’ll also have the chance to discuss your fears and work out a plan for when your appointment rolls around. If you can’t get in to see your dentist face to face, look them up online to get a feel for the type of person they are. One way we try and do this is with our meet the team page.
3. Ask for a break
Once your treatment has begun, don’t be afraid to ask for a break if you feel your anxiety rising—especially if the procedure is likely to take a while. Before everything starts, work out a hand signal with your dentist. This way you can easily let them know when you need a pause.
4. Focus on something else
Distractions such as watching Netflix (we have screens on the ceilings), or listening to music, a podcast or an audiobook gives you something to think about other than what your dentist is doing. It can also make the session go more quickly. Being done within half an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine or before reaching track five on the latest Taylor Swift album feels much faster than us letting you know there’s 15 or 20 minutes more to go.
5. Get the facts
If your anxiety is due to a fear of the unknown, we encourage you to ask us any questions you have. Whether it’s about the cost of treatment or the procedure itself, our front of house staff, dental assistants and dentists are all here to answer your questions and put your mind at ease.
Your dentist and their team are here to help you
It’s important to remember that there’s no shame in feeling dental anxiety. After all, around three million Australians are in the same boat as you. What’s important to realise is that as your dentists, we’re here to help you get the oral health care you need in whatever way makes you feel most comfortable. And if that involves answering questions or going at your pace, we’re more than happy to accommodate that. The first step is contacting our friendly front of house staff. Let them know about your dental fears, and we can work together to move onto step two.