Oral health is widely regarded as one of the most important aspects of our overall health. However, perhaps just as prevalent is the fear of the dentist. This common fear can stem from a number of emotions related to worries over your oral health, as well as potential bad experiences you may have had at the dentist during your youth.
But for some people, such fears can come in the form of dentophobia (also called odontophobia). Like other phobias, this is defined as an extreme or irrational fear to objects, situations, or people — in this case, dentophobia is the extreme fear of going to the dentist.
Given the importance of oral care to your overall health, a fear of the dentist shouldn’t hold you back from regular checkups and cleanings. Still, it’s not easy for everyone to just simply go to the dentist.
Here, we’ll discuss the potential underlying causes as well as treatments and coping mechanisms that can be a starting point for helping you conquer your fear of the dentist.
Fear vs. phobia
Fears and phobias are often discussed interchangeably, but these two states of mind have some marked differences between them. A fear can be a strong dislike that may cause avoidance, but it’s not necessarily something you might think about until the thing you fear presents itself.
On the other hand, a phobia is a much stronger form of fear. Phobias are considered a type of anxiety disorder, and are known to cause extreme distress and avoidance — so much so, that these interfere with your daily life.
Another characteristic of a phobia is that it’s not something that will likely cause you harm in reality, but you can’t help feeling that it will.
When applied to the context of going to the dentist, being fearful could mean you dislike going and put off your appointments until necessary. You may dislike the feel and the sounds of the instruments used during cleanings and other procedures, but you put up with them anyway.
In comparison, dentophobia can present such a severe fear that you avoid the dentist altogether. Even the mere mention or thought of the dentist may cause anxiety. Nightmares and panic attacks may also occur.
The causes and treatment for a fear of the dentist and dentophobia may be similar. However, a legitimate phobia of the dentist can take more time and work to cope with.
A fear of the dentist is usually caused by negative past experiences. You may have been afraid of the dentist as a child, and these feelings stuck with you as you grew up.
Some people are also afraid of the noises of the tools dentists and dental hygienists use for teeth cleaning and exams, so thinking about these could bring about some fears, too.
By definition, a phobia is an extreme fear. This might also be tied to a negative experience in the past. Perhaps you experienced pain, discomfort, or a general lack of empathy at a dentist office, and this has created a significant aversion to seeing another dentist in the future. It’s estimated that 2.7 percent of men and 4.6 percent of womenTrusted Source have dentophobia.
Aside from fears and phobias tied to past experiences, it’s also possible to experience fear of a dentist because of concerns you might have about your oral health. Perhaps you have a tooth ache or bleeding gums, or maybe you just haven’t been to the dentist in several months or years and are afraid of receiving bad news.
Any of these concerns could cause you to avoid going to the dentist.
Mild fears over seeing the dentist are best remedied by going to the dentist instead of avoiding it. In the case of significant dental work, you may ask to be sedated so you’re not awake during the procedure. While not common practice in all offices, you may be able to find a dentist who can accommodate your sedation wishes.
However, if you have a true phobia, the act of going to the dentist is much easier said than done. Like other phobias, dentophobia may be tied to an anxiety disorder, which may require a combination of therapies and medications.
Exposure therapy, a type of psychotherapy, is among the most effective solutions for dentophobia because it involves seeing the dentist on a more gradual basis.
You might start by making visits to the dentist’s office without actually sitting down for an exam. Then, you can gradually build on your visits with partial exams, X-rays, and cleanings until you’re comfortable to take on a full appointment.
Medications won’t treat dentophobia by themselves. However, certain types of anti-anxiety medications may alleviate symptoms as you’re working through exposure therapy. These can also ease some of the more physical symptoms of your phobia, such as high blood pressure.
Tips to stay calm
Whether you’re ready to face your fear full-on or you’re getting ready for exposure therapy to gradually see the dentist, the following tips can help you stay calm during your appointment:
See the dentist at a less busy time of day, such as the morning hours. There will be fewer people, but also fewer tools making noises that could trigger your anxiety. Also, the later you see your dentist, the more time your anxieties will build up in anticipation.
Bring noise-canceling headphones or ear buds with music to help you relax.
Ask a friend or a loved one to accompany you during your appointment.
Practice deep breathing and other meditation techniques to calm your nerves.
Above all else, know that it’s OK if you need a break at any point during your visit. It can be helpful to establish a “signal” with your dentist ahead of time so they know when to stop.
You can then either continue with your visit when you’re ready, or come back another day when you feel better.