A lot of us worry about going to the dentist. There’s something about having someone working on our mouths and teeth that inspires mild anxiety. For some folks, however, seeing the dentist is cause for extreme fear. We call this dental phobia, and it can prevent people from getting needed care. According to the Cleveland Clinic, around 36 percent of people are afraid of the dentist, and 12 percent have extreme fear. However, with the right strategies, we can help patients overcome their fears and get the dental care they need in a welcoming environment.
What Causes Dental Phobia?
Dental phobia can affect patients who don’t experience anxiety in other medical settings. Some of the causes include:
- Family history: the way our parents and family members frame dental care can have a significant impact on our perceptions. Negative or fearful attitudes can move through generations.
- Past negative experiences: some patients have experienced painful treatments or dismissive behavior at past dental visits.
- Fear of losing control: unlike most healthcare visits, going to the dentist puts us in an extra vulnerable position. We often can’t communicate with our providers as effectively as we would like. We fear losing control or being unable to alert the dentist to pain or discomfort.
- Sensitivity to sounds or smells: many of us are conditioned to feel alarmed at the sounds of drills and other equipment, while others are disturbed by smells in healthcare settings.
- Embarrassment about dental problems: some patients have concerns about how their mouths look or smell, especially when they have delayed care.
- Fear of needles: many patients associate the dentist with novocaine shots and are worried about the needles involved.
- Fear of blood: even though most dental procedures involve little or no blood, some patients become anxious at the sight or thought of blood.
- Gag reflex or fear of choking: this involuntary reaction can prompt anxiety and heighten the sense of losing control.
How Can I Cope with Dental Phobia?
Many mental health professionals treat severe dental phobia through exposure therapy. It can include watching videos of dentists’ offices and visiting an office without getting treatment to get used to the environment. Finally, patients move gradually into treatment, starting with a non-threatening cleaning or checkup.
Other effective techniques include:
- Relaxation techniques, including visualization and breathing techniques.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): a form of talk therapy that helps patients replace negative thoughts with more positive ones and change behaviors that impact daily life.
- Alternative therapies, including acupuncture and hypnotherapy, can help patients relax.
- Sedation dentistry, including nitrous oxide, oral medications and IV sedation.
- Distraction techniques in your dentist’s office, including music and videos.
How Can My Family Dentist Help With My Dental Phobia?
Whatever path you choose to tackle dental phobia, finding a dentist who “gets it” and establishing effective communication is key. Your dentist and her team are essential partners in building a trusting relationship where patients feel safe and secure. At Greenhill Family Dental in Gainesville, our entire team, from the front desk to hygienists and assistants to our practitioners, are trained in supporting patients with dental phobia. We’ve had tremendous success with nitrous oxide sedation dentistry in helping patients keep anxiety at bay and get the care they need. We also work to create a safe and welcoming environment where all patients feel at ease and are comfortable addressing concerns with their providers.