Why some people are afraid of the dentist

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Very few people enjoy going to the dentist, but for some, the sound of a dental drill is enough to send shivers down their spine.

Anywhere from 48 per cent to nearly 60 per cent of the population experiences a form dental anxiety or extreme dental fear, according to studies.

While incredibly common, there are different types of dental dread that range in severity. Dental fear is most often a specific fear, like a fear of drills or needles, explains Lisa J. Heaton, an assistant professor of oral health sciences at the University of Washington.

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“Somebody might sit down in the dental chair and feel pretty OK, but when they see the needle on the tray in front of them… they become very fearful and their heart starts to race,” Heaton told Global News.

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Dental anxiety, on the other hand, is general unease about going to the dentist. For these people, even thinking about the dentist can make them anxious, and they may put off scheduling appointments.

Dental phobia is an extreme fear of visiting the dentist, and it affects around five to 10 per cent of U.S. adults, Heaton said.

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“They will avoid dental care even when they really need it,” Heaton said. “[It’s a] fear that is so extreme and severe that it gets in the way of people living their lives.”

Why people are afraid of the dentist

Most people are afraid of pain, and the dentist can represent unpleasant experiences in a vulnerable part of our body: our mouth.

Heaton says that people feel anxious about the idea of drilling or needles, and anything that could cause them discomfort. Sitting in a chair and having someone work on their teeth can also feel like a loss of control.

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“A lot of patients are concerned about giving up that control and not being able to stop the procedure when they want to,” she said.

There are also factors that go beyond discomfort.

According to a 2014 study out of the U.K., common reasons why people have dental fear include their own traumatic experiences, as well as vicarious learning through the experiences that significant others, like their parents, have faced. Other reasons include portrayal in the media, as well as biological factors and personality traits.

Other research suggests that dental fear may be an aspect of other phobias or anxiety disorders, including social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder (and a fear of germs), or panic disorder.

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Research shows that fearing the dentist often begins in childhood. Heaton says that around 75 to 80 per cent of people with a fear of the dentist say they’ve felt that way for most of their lives.

“It’s very likely that something may have happened in childhood that has set them up to think that dentistry is scary,” she said.

When dental fear affects your health

Dental fear or phobia can have detrimental effects on oral health. Research shows that people who fear the dentist may be more inclined to avoid dental care, ultimately affecting their gums and teeth — which can become a vicious cycle.

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For people with moderate to high dental fear, one Australian study found that nearly 40 per cent avoided going to the dentist for treatments. In comparison, for people with no dental fear, only less than one per cent avoided appointments.

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Heaton says this “cycle of avoidance” only reinforces the idea that the dentist is a scary and harmful place.

“Somebody will have a negative dental experience and so they’ll say, ‘I’m never going back to the dentist.’ And then as they avoid the dentist, they start having more problems; they’ll more have more infection or they’ll have teeth that break,” she explained.

“They’ll avoid until they have one of these dental emergencies… and by the time that happens, it requires a much more invasive and involved treatment, which then reinforces the idea that every time you go to the dentist it’s invasive and terrible.”

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Going to the dentist and having routine check-ups is important for oral health and for overall well-being. Heaton says tooth problems not only affect what you can and cannot eat, but can have social and professional repercussions.

“[People] might not date and they might not go for jobs they would like to interview for because they are embarrassed about the state of their teeth,” she said.

How to overcome dental fear

If your dental fear is so extreme it’s affecting your health, it’s best to get professional help.

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Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can be an effective tool in overcoming dental fear, Heaton said. One British study found the therapy to be “an effective technique for helping dentally anxious patients receive treatment without sedation.”

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Heaton also recommends mindfulness exercises, like deep breathing.

It’s also important that dentists learn how to work with anxious patients, and create environments that feel safe. This can help people build positive experiences, and in turn, reduce the likelihood of dental phobia.

Lastly, finding a dentist you feel comfortable with is incredibly important. Heaton suggests making an appointment with a new dentist to just speak with them before sitting in the chair. That way, the first time you’re meeting them isn’t when you’re going in for a procedure.

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When you’re at the dentist, let them know you have anxiety. This will help them be mindful of your fears. You can even develop a hand signal with them to be used if you need them to stop.

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“Dental fear — and especially dental phobia — is not one of those things that goes away overnight, but it’s something that’s built on a trusting relationship with the dentist,” Heaton said.

“Sometimes it takes a few attempts to find a dentist that you really click with, but I encourage people to talk to as many dentists as they need until they find one they really feel comfortable with.”


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