Statistics show that many people suffer from dental anxiety. Dental anxiety is more serious than just getting sweaty palms at the thought of going to the dentist — it’s a paralyzing fear of dentists or dental treatment.
Avoiding the dentist not only exposes you to higher risks of dental problems, it can also take a toll on your self-esteem and self-perception. Remember, dental anxiety is not insurmountable, but communicating with your dentist is important. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this fear, dentists have a special scheme for nervous patients. There are many dentists who have the tools, techniques and caring manner to help make regular dental visits more comfortable and relaxing for you.
Dental Anxiety vs. Dental Phobia: Defining the Difference
Contrary to what most people think, dental anxiety and dental phobia are not the same. While both are incredibly common, they are also extremely different. This part breaks down the two terms and draws the line between common public error.
Dental anxiety refers to the feeling of uneasiness people sometimes feel when it is time for their appointment. Most people can live with the feeling of anxiety, but some people experience extreme unease coupled with exaggerated or unfounded worries and fears.
The anxiety felt during a visit could be attributed to the feeling of helplessness and control that is prevalent in most clinics. Because you do nothing but sit in the dental chair and the dentist has control over what goes on, it is completely understandable to feel this way, most especially if it’s your first time.
Embarrassment is also a key factor for those who feel anxious or uneasy during their visit. People may feel ashamed or self-conscious about how their teeth or mouth looks on the inside. It could also be due to negative past experiences during previous dental procedures.
Dental phobia, on the other hand, is more than a slight feeling of uneasiness or embarrassment. For people with such a phobia, visits to the dentist are so terrifying that they will go through extreme means just to get away from any appointment.
Phobia refers to an intense and irrational fear toward an activity, a person, an object or a situation. People with dental phobia put off the imperative dental appointments for years, and some even put up with gum infections, pain, or even unsightly teeth.
How dental anxiety or phobia can affect your oral health?
Avoiding the dentist can result in the worsening of dental disease, a greater need for emergency care or more complex treatment. It can also feeding the underlying problem of dental anxiety. This is known as the ‘vicious cycle of dental anxiety’.
Regular dental check-ups, cleans and screening X-rays can prevent dental disease and help the dentist find any problems early, so that simpler and less invasive treatments are needed.
Most dental disease is lifestyle-related and preventable. By avoiding going to the dentist, not only are you more likely to need more complex treatments when you do finally attend, but you are also missing out on learning how to better care for your oral health.
The lifestyle factors that lead to dental disease are very similar to those that lead to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke and some cancers, so taking care of your oral and general health is very important.
Causes of dental anxiety and phobia
Dental anxiety can be caused by:
- a traumatic dental experience or other healthcare experience(s)
- previous trauma to the head and neck
- other traumatic experiences, including abuse
- generalised anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder
- the view that the mouth is a personal area and accessing the mouth is an invasion of personal space
- fear of loss of control
- trust issues
- anxiety associated with other conditions such as agoraphobia (fear of being in situations where you feel you cannot escape), claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces) or obsessive compulsive disorder where there is an obsession around cleanliness can make access to dental care more difficult.
Who can be affected by dental anxiety
Dental anxiety is common and can affect people of any age.
Children who have had bad dental experiences in most cases can overcome their fear if the situation is managed well and they are well cared for and supported during further dental visits. Adults who are anxious about dental care tend to remain anxious throughout life.
Many anxious dental patients can find a dentist who is sympathetic to their situation, so they are able to cope with going to the dentist.
Dental Anxiety Tips
One of the greatest tools for overcoming fears is to have positive experiences negating those fears. To do that, it can be helpful to move beyond the anxiety. These tips can help you overcome, or at least manage, your dental anxiety, so you can get the oral health care you need for the sake of your dental and overall health.
Take Better Care of Your Oral Health
Easing dental anxiety can begin at home. You may have existing oral health concerns due to neglect. While you do need to address those, upping your oral health routine at home can help you feel more confident going into the dentist’s office. Things you can do include the following:
- Avoiding using tobacco
- Eating a healthy diet
- Cutting out sugary foods and drinks
- Eating more tooth-building proteins and fewer carbs
- Brushing your teeth at least twice daily using fluoride-based toothpaste
- Flossing daily
- Replacing your toothbrush every three months
Boosting your confidence going into the dentist’s office sets the stage for a better experience overall.
Talk to the Dentist
Anyone with anxiety knows sharing your feelings makes a world of difference. If you’re tense or anxious, do yourself a favor and get your concerns off your chest. Your dentist and dental team are better able to treat you if they know your needs.
- Tell your dentist about your anxiety. When you book your appointment, tell the receptionist you’re nervous about dental visits. Remind the dentist and dental staff about your anxiety when you arrive. Share any bad experiences you may have had in the past, and ask for suggestions on coping strategies.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Sometimes knowing what is going to happen alleviates any fears of the unknown.
- Agree on a signal. Let your dentist know by raising your hand if you need to take a break during an exam.
- If you experience pain even with a local anesthetic, tell your dentist. Some patients get embarrassed about their pain tolerance or don’t want to interrupt a dentist during a procedure. Talk with your dentist about pain before it starts so your dentist knows how to communicate with you and make it more comfortable.
Learn to Trust the Dentist
Read reviews online from other dental patients. Their independent feedback helps you establish some trust in your dentist and how they have helped others with their dental care.
Ask the Dentist About Tools and Resources Available to Maximize Your Comfort
Dentists use plenty of dental anxiety treatment options available today to assist patient comfort. These include things like:
- On-demand video services
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- Warm blankets
- Relaxing music — in some cases, allowing patients to choose the music
As you can see, there are plenty of tools available to help reduce anxiety. Choose an dentist who offers or allows you to bring in an anxiety-curbing tool of your choice.
Practice meditation and mindfulness
Meditation is a time-honoured tool for dealing with general anxiety. You can use it to address specific types of anxiety, like the kind you could experience when considering a dental visit. Begin with deep breathing exercises, and return to those anytime your upcoming dental care needs make you feel overwhelmed.
Relaxation starts in the mind. Try deep breathing exercises to help relax tension in your muscles.
- Count your breaths. Inhale slowly and then exhale for the same number of counts. Do this five times while you’re waiting for your appointment, or during breaks while you’re sitting in the dental chair.
- Do a body scan. Concentrate on relaxing your muscles, one body part at a time. Start with your head and work your way down to your toes. For example, you can focus on releasing tension starting in your forehead, then your cheeks, your neck and down the rest of your body.
Distract yourself from what is going on
Taking your mind off the exam may seem impossible when you’re nervous, but there are some things that that can help distract your thoughts.
- Wear headphones. If the sound of the drill bothers you, bring headphones so you can listen to your favorite music or audiobook. Some dental offices even have televisions or show DVDs.
- Occupy your hands by squeezing a stress ball or playing with a small handheld object, like a fidget spinner.
- Imagine your happy place and visualize yourself at a relaxing beach or garden.
Ball or fidget spinner
Invest in a stress ball or fidget spinner to occupy your mind during your visit: Children might like to have their favourite stuffed animal along with them during their appointment.
Consider anxiety medication
Another option to consider for coping with your dental anxiety is to ask your physician if a short-term prescription for anti-anxiety medication might help you get through your dental treatment needs. You’ll need to discuss this with your dentist as well to avoid potential interactions between medications, but it might help take the edge off your anxiety enough so you can get through the procedure without experiencing excess stress.
Practice visualization techniques
Picture yourself somewhere else, preferably a place that relaxes you. Whether this is at the beach or sitting on your front porch swing, visualizing you’re somewhere pleasant can help calm you.
How Dentists Can Help You Manage Your Dental Anxiety
Dental Choice offers a variety of tools and services designed to ease anxiety and help you feel more comfortable throughout your visit. Not only are dentists willing to discuss your anxiety and work out a series of hand signals you can use to help ease your concerns, but they also offer sedation techniques to help ease your fears about treatment. Not all patients are suitable for sedation dentistry. dentists will help identify if one of our sedation methods is a suitable choice for you.
Severe dental anxiety or phobia may require management with relative analgesia (happy gas), anxiety relieving medication, conscious sedation (twilight sedation) or general anaesthesia.
Relative analgesia (happy gas)
Known as happy gas or laughing gas, nitrous oxide can help people relax during dental treatment. A mask is fitted to your face, and you breathe a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide. It takes effect within a few minutes and wears off quickly.
You will feel relaxed but will still be awake. You can talk to the dentist, and hear what they say to you, but you won’t necessarily remember everything once the visit is over.
For most people, the relaxed sensation created by nitrous oxide sedation is very pleasant. Occasionally people don’t like the sensation it creates, and other options can be considered.
Anxiety relieving medication (oral anxiolytic tablets)
Oral anxiety relieving (anxiolytic) medications (such as temazepam) are sometimes prescribed by dentists or doctors to help anxious patients relax. A short-acting, small, single dose is usually taken one hour before the dental appointment.
Medication should only be taken following discussion with your dentist or doctor. You will need someone to accompany you to and from the dental visit as you cannot safely drive a car while under the influence of anxiolytic medication.
This type of sedation involves receiving medication through a drip placed into a vein of the arm or hand. Intravenous (IV) sedation is provided by a dental sedationist (a dentist with advanced training in sedation) or an anaesthetist. It can be undertaken at a dental practice that has additional equipment, or in a hospital.
Under IV sedation, patients are relaxed and may drift off into a light sleep, but they can respond to verbal prompts. Possible side effects include drowsiness and nausea after the procedure. Patients should not drive themselves home after intravenous sedation.
Not all dentists offer treatment under sedation. Some pre-existing medical conditions or medications may affect the type of sedation you can have. Talk to your dentist for further information.
Treatment under a general anaesthetic is carried out in a hospital setting by the dentist and anaesthetist. General anaesthesia involves patients being ‘fully asleep’. Some possible side effects include nausea and a longer recovery time than other forms of sedation.
A general anaesthetic can be a good option for some people, but remember that it doesn’t help you learn coping strategies for anxiety or get used to going to see the dentist.
You will need both pre- and post-operative visits to the dentist. The anaesthetist will also need to assess you prior to the general anaesthetic. Patients cannot drive themselves home after a general anaesthetic.
Some dental treatments are better provided over several visits. This means that your treatment options may be more limited if you want all your dental treatment under general anaesthetic. Some people need a lot of treatment and it may not be possible to get enough anaesthetic time to finish all the treatment in one session.
In some instances, having some treatment done in the dental chair before the general anaesthetic will help prepare the mouth for the treatment that will be provided, to make best use of the general anaesthetic session.
General anaesthetic works best when used in conjunction with other strategies, so that some treatments can be done without general anaesthetic. This way, the general anaesthetic session time is kept for the treatments that are most difficult to cope with.