Dental Guides

Dealing with Dental Anxiety

Does the thought of visiting the dentist send chills down your spine? Do you believe that the face of pure evil lurks behind that white mask your dentist wears? Would you rather spend the weekend in line at the DMV with your in-laws and seven highly caffeinated five year-olds than schedule a 30 minute dental cleaning? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you probably suffer from dental anxiety.

Like most phobias, dental anxiety can range from the mild, a slight feeling of dread and uneasiness, to the severe, outright panic that leaves you wishing you could wear a set of wooden teeth like George Washington so you’d never have to visit the dentist again. Regardless of a person’s level of dental anxiety, choosing to postpone, or forego completely, trips to the dentist can cause serious health concerns.

The Dangers of Dental Anxiety

Experts estimate that between 9 and 15 percent of all Americans avoid scheduling trips to the dentist because they suffer from severe dental anxiety. That’s approximately 30 to 40 million people who regularly neglect their teeth and gums because of this debilitating fear. Since your teeth allow you to do such handy things as chew, smile, and talk, it’s probably a good idea to take care of them.

Tooth decay can begin to weaken the health of your smile even if you brush and floss regularly. Combating tooth decay has just as much to do with when you brush as it does with how regularly you brush. If you eat a lot of sugary foods, you expose your teeth’s enamel to the decay causing bacteria known as plaque for 20 minutes after each time you eat or drink. If you don’t brush for several hours after eating that candy bar, drinking that soda, or having a meal, you provide plaque with all the time it needs to cause some serious dental problems.

Regular checkups provide your dentist the opportunity to spot tooth decay before the damage becomes too severe. The earlier your dentist identifies a potential problem, the less invasive the treatment options become to fix the problem. The real irony of dental anxiety is the longer someone puts off visiting the dentist because of their fear, the more invasive and painful the procedure their dentist needs to perform in order to correct the problem. This in turn only reinforces the person’s perception about the dentist, and causes them to put off future visits.

Learning to Love (Or at Least not Mind) the Dentist

Like any other mental disorder, dental anxiety can be overcome with treatment. If you suffer from an extreme form of anxiety that has left you willing to eat the rest of you meals through a straw if it means never having to visit the dentist, than you might need to seek professional help to overcome your phobia. If you have a less severe form that leaves you anxious, worried, and stressed out whenever you think about visiting the dentist, there are steps you can take to help overcome your fear.

Despite what you might think, your dentist is not out of get you and doesn’t enjoy causing you pain. Your dentist understands that many people don’t enjoy scheduling a visit to their office, and will work to help you overcome your anxiety. The four main reasons for dental anxiety: a fear of pain, a feeling of helplessness, embarrassment, and a previous negative dental experience; can be dealt with through opening a dialogue with your dentist.

If you feel a loss of control while sitting in the dentist’s chair, ask your dentist to explain the procedure in detail prior to beginning. If you know what to expect during the procedure, you can better prepare yourself to deal with any feelings of pain or discomfort that might arise. Ask if you can take frequent breaks during the procedure if necessary, so you can take the time to gather yourself if you feel your anxiety growing.

Feelings of embarrassment during dental procedures can stem from being ashamed of how your teeth look or feeling like your dentist will judge you by how you’ve taken care of your teeth. Build a rapport with your dentist by discussing these fears, and they can help put you at easy by creating a level trust between you. Keep in mind, no matter who bad you think your smile, your dentist has seen worse.

If you possess a low pain tolerance, look for a dentist who specializes in sedation dentistry. Through the use of several types of pharmaceutical drugs, sedation dentistry can take the edge off of any pain you may normally associate with a trip to the dentist, and can even put you under for certain procedures. Due to the strong medications used as part of sedation dentistry, however, you should discuss any preexisting medical conditions or allergies with your dentist prior to undergoing treatment.

Finally, if you had a bad experience with a previous dental procedure, tell your dentist about what made that previous appointment so disagreeable. Like any profession, not all dentists are as good at their jobs as others, and blaming all dentists for the poor performance of one can prevent you from enjoying good oral health that will last you a lifetime. 

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Timothy Lemke writes about dentistry for the office of Dr. Jack Jorgensen, a cosmetic dentist in Vancouver, Washington

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