Depending on who you ask, as many as 1-in-3 people may have some level of dental anxiety, dental phobia or fear of the dentist. Some people’s “dentophobia” is so severe that it prevents them from seeing their dentist altogether. But with a fear of the dentist comes a lack of oral health care, allowing your smile’s condition to spiral out of control.
Understanding what makes you nervous about the dentist can help you recover from dental anxiety and get your oral health back on track.
Dentophobia is an intense fear or severe anxiety related to dental care or visiting the dentist. It can be triggered by a variety of different factors, including fear of pain, needles, or the sound of dental equipment. Some people just don’t like having someone else put their hands in their mouth, and it makes them feel claustrophobic or irritates their gag reflex.
A lot of people with dentophobia tend to avoid their dental appointments, which can lead to their dental problems getting worse over time.
Fear of dentists can also impact your quality of life or might lead to embarrassment or self-consciousness about the appearance of your teeth. In fact, a lot of people who are nervous about dentist visits tend to feel ashamed about the shape of their teeth once they finally bite the bullet and see their dentist in person.
The great news is that any good, quality dentist can work with you to ease your anxiety and provide a comfortable, positive experience (in a totally judgment-free atmosphere.)
Dental anxiety is more of a common occurrence than full-out fear of dentists. Dental anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways and can affect people differently. Some individuals may experience physical symptoms we call “white coat syndrome” at the time of their appointment. This condition can present itself with symptoms of a rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling, or nausea before or during a dental appointment. Other people may feel tense or on edge and have difficulty sleeping or eating before their appointment.
During a dental appointment, someone with dental anxiety may feel uncomfortable or even painful sensations from dental equipment or dental procedures that wouldn’t bother a typically non-anxious patient. They may feel helpless, vulnerable, or out of control, which can further exacerbate their anxiety or fear.
Some individuals may not have issues with seeing a dentist at all, but they still have a fear of needles, making local anesthetics or other injections particularly difficult to sit through.
It’s a lot more common for someone to say that dental visits make them nervous or they dislike the dentist but still follow through with their recommended care plan. But on the flip side, someone with dental phobia will have such an intense fear of the dental practice that they may not see a dentist for years or decades. They often delay dental treatment until they’re experiencing severe levels of pain or infection when dental care becomes unavoidable.
Dental anxiety affects a high number of people, but dentophobia is far less common. Many times, these individuals require anti-anxiety medication simply to sit through their exam and sedatives if a cleaning or restorative care is needed.
While it’s fairly common for people to feel anxious about visiting their dentist, far fewer are likely to have a severe case of dentophobia.
For example, most people don’t like the idea of a spider running across their feet. But someone with arachnophobia (intense fear of spiders) is likely going to have such irrational fear and panic attack-like reactions that they’ll probably jerk, scream, or hyperventilate in the next room.
It’s not a simple nervousness; it’s an intense, extreme, irrational fear. Clinical mental health experts call it “uncontrollable, irrational, and lasting.” The same medical experts say that there are about 19 million Americans who have some type of actual phobia (not necessarily dental) and that the majority of them show up sometime between ages 15-20.
When you’re so afraid or nervous about dentist visits that you don’t go to the dentist, you’re unfortunately setting yourself up for preventable oral health conditions and recurring issues. Such as:
And let’s not forget that some of these oral infections also tie back to co-existing medical issues, worsening your chances of a heart attack, stroke, infertility, pneumonia, and other concerns.
It’s not just your smile that suffers when you’re nervous about dentist visits. Your body and quality of life do as well. Especially as gum disease or cavities start to interfere with your self-esteem and social relationships.
The reason behind someone experiencing real, genuine dentist fears can vary. But here are some that are fairly common:
Whether you were a kid or an adult and you suffered through a super painful or traumatic dental procedure (like they didn’t numb you up all the way or they held your hands down,) that can make anybody anxious or fearful of dentists.
Every industry has jerks. If you had a dentist who was just outright rude or didn’t take time to listen to you, chances are you’re probably going to think a lot of other dentists are similar. They’re not.
People who have a ton of gum recession typically have teeth that are way more sensitive than normal, which can make it hurt if someone is poking around your mouth (figuratively, but also literally.) If you have a sensitive gag reflex, you probably hate the idea of someone touching the inside of your mouth.
If it’s your first time to need a dental filling, guess what? It’s totally ok to feel nervous. Your dentist can take some steps to help you relax and feel comfortable, like putting numbing gel on the gums or giving you laughing gas.
Believe it or not, people overcome their fear of the dentist every day. It is 100% doable! Here are just some of the things I’ve seen work with other anxious patients or ideas you may want to try for yourself:
Talking to your dental team in advance will work wonders. When they know you’re afraid of the dentist or have full-blown dental phobia, they can go above and beyond to make sure your visit is as relaxing and slow-paced as possible. They can also have extra resources on hand, such as numbing gel or laughing gas. In fact, they might just book you for an exam and nothing else, letting you set the stage for what comes next based on how you feel.
Meditation, deep breathing, and even aromatherapy techniques can help you feel more relaxed wherever you are. You can try this one on your commute home from work, too!
There are all sorts of levels of dental sedation and analgesia that dentists will use. The lightest is nitrous oxide or “laughing gas.” With this one, the effects are 100% reversible, so you can drive yourself home after your visit. Nitrous is adjustable, and you’ll feel almost like you had a couple of glasses of wine to drink. If that’s not enough, talk to your dentist about an oral sedative that you can take. These types of medications also have an amnesic effect, so you will probably forget about most of, if not your entire visit.
This is a great one that works for anybody, even if they don’t have dental anxiety. Find something to distract yourself with. Does the dentist have a television on the ceiling or wall? Focus on what’s on the screen, not the dental setting or dental instruments. Do you have a pair of headphones that connect to your phone? Noise-canceling headphones are even better! Create a playlist of your favorite music and play it all the way through; music is a great distraction and relaxation technique. Simple distractions like holding your foot up in the air during your dental X-rays can also help take your mind off things if you have a bit of a sensitive gag reflex.
Think to yourself about what the steps are or what’s going to happen at your appointment. Now, think through what you’ll look and feel like at the end of the visit. Will you feel confident? Healthier? More in control? Great! Keep repeating those thoughts to yourself leading up to and during your appointment. If you know other people who have gone to the same dentist’s office, ask them to tell you about your experience there and keep a mental note of all the great things they have to say.
Consider bringing a close friend or loved one with you to your appointment. Have them stand next to you or even hold your hand during the exam. Some dentists even offer pet therapy where there’s a dog that will lay on you during your appointment! Or consider professional support, talking with a licensed professional counselor (LPC) about your phobia of dentists so that they can give you practical strategies to try. When you’re more mentally aware of the feelings you’re experiencing, you’ll be better equipped to tackle them head on.
People with clinical phobias can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy with a licensed mental health therapist or personal counselor. This method of counseling helps you shape how you view the situation to be better in control of your feelings, allowing you to process them in a healthy, typical way.
Consider making short visits to the dentist’s office to keep things simple. For example, scheduling one X-ray and an exam, and that’s it. That way, you know what’s going on inside your mouth but won’t have to force yourself through any injections or “dental work.” As you form relationships with your new provider, chances are you’ll feel more comfortable working with them and be less anxious at the next appointment.
Ask about sedation. Whether it’s an oral prescription you take beforehand or laughing gas, do whatever it takes. When you feel more physically relaxed, your mind can rest, and you can take care of your smile like you need to. Most people who feel nervous about the dentist and need sedation don’t need it again at their recurring visits!
The best way to avoid being scared of the dentist is to take good care of your teeth at home. Brushing your teeth regularly, using dental floss, and going for check-ups help prevent big dental treatments and problems. When you keep up with these habits, you're less likely to need complicated dental treatments that might make you anxious. Taking charge of your oral health by doing these simple things not only keeps your teeth in good shape but also makes visits to the dentist less stressful. So, a happy and healthy smile starts with taking care of your teeth every day!
I recommend you check out my free oral care guide to discover the five elements of a great home care routine and avoid poor oral health!
The idea of visiting the dentist can trigger fear and unease for many people. This section delves into the nature of dental anxiety and the tools that dental professionals employ to measure and address it, such as Corah's Dental Anxiety Scale.
Corah’s Dental Anxiety Scale plays a crucial role in helping dentists evaluate the extent of a patient's fear. This brief questionnaire, developed in 1969, categorizes the severity of dental anxiety. It has been a fundamental tool for dentists in customizing their approach to patient care for decades. Explore more about Corah’s Dental Anxiety Scale.
Dental Fear Survey consists of 20 questions designed to uncover a broader range of fears, including those not immediately apparent. Download the survey, fill it out, and bring to your dental office.
Download it here.
Dentists know that people hate to come to see them. Let’s be real; the first thing out of a lot of patients’ mouths when they sit in the dental chair is, “I hate the dentist.” I’ve heard it five billion times. But if you know you outright suffer from dentophobia or fear of dentists, let your dental team know. They can take things easy, slow the process down, and even give you something to take the edge off. Like a pill before the visit or some laughing gas. Who doesn’t like laughing gas?!
Don’t worry about what your dentist is going to think if you let them know you have dentophobia. The better they understand, the more they’ll be able to help you conquer your fear of the dentist and get your smile healthy again. While it’s normal to feel embarrassed, it happens more often than you probably suspect.
Experiencing anxiety during dental visits or stressful treatments is a common challenge, with anxiety disorders affecting approximately 40 million American adults annually. If the thought of going to the dentist triggers stress or if dental treatments cause significant anxiety, seeking help is crucial.
There are effective interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and conscious sedation that can assist individuals in managing dental anxiety. These approaches focus on addressing the psychological aspects of anxiety and creating a more comfortable dental environment. Seeking support and exploring these options can significantly improve the dental experience for those grappling with anxiety during dental visits or treatments.
Dental anxiety is fairly common, but full-out phobia or fear of dentists is a little less normal. If you’re nervous about dentist visits, communicate that with your oral health team. They’re there to help you reshape the way you view dental care and will adapt your visit to ensure a comfortable experience. For anyone with severe dental anxiety that prevent you from seeing a dental provider, ask for sedation during you dental visit (even if it’s just laughing gas) and consider speaking with a licensed mental health practitioner, who can help coach you through the process of heading back to the dentist’s office for preventative care!
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