By Mary Daly, Care2.com
A phobia is an extreme and possibly unreasonable fear. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 9.1 percent of U.S. adults experience specific phobias that impact their lives. Maybe it’s a fear of flying or a type of social anxiety. Maybe you have a form of claustrophobia that prevents you from using an elevator. Or how about a fear of going to the dentist?
More people than you might think experience an intense fear of the tooth doctor. Here’s how it affects their lives — and what they can do to manage the condition.
WHAT IS DENTOPHOBIA?
Dentophobia is exaggerated fear or anxiety about going to the dentist. Roughly 9 percent to 15 percent of Americans avoid seeing a dentist because of this phobia, according to Cleveland Clinic. And others might need to practice coping methods to make it through their dental appointments.
Some people with this fear might have had a past experience that triggered it, while others can’t pinpoint when exactly it started. “People with dental phobia have an awareness that the fear is totally irrational but are unable to do much to change it,” Cleveland Clinic says.
Many people don’t exactly love going to the dentist. But when does that cross the line into phobia? According to Cleveland Clinic, here are some common symptoms of dental phobia:
- Skipping dental appointments or only going when forced
- Trouble sleeping before a dental appointment
- Getting to your appointment but being unable to enter or feeling progressively more nervous in the waiting room
- Feeling physically ill at the thought of the dentist
- Intense unease — sometimes to the point where it’s difficult to breathe — from the dentist or hygienist working on your mouth
- Of course, everyone reacts personally to a phobia, so symptoms may vary. The bottom line is whether the fear and anxiety make it difficult for you to take care of your teeth as you should.
WHY DO PEOPLE DEVELOP A FEAR OF THE DENTIST?
According to Cleveland Clinic, the fear of pain is a common reason people develop dental phobia. This might have stemmed from a past dental experience that went wrong. Or it simply could be the knowledge that there’s potential for a procedure to hurt, based on other people’s “horror stories.”
But it’s not only a specific fear of dental work that can trigger a phobia. “Instead, going to the dentist often evokes other fears, such as being trapped, getting an injection, seeing blood or having your personal space invaded,” according to the American Psychological Association. “Anxious family members can pass on the idea that dentistry is scary, a message underscored by popular media depictions of dental visits as unpleasant or painful.” For instance, when people compare unfavorable scenarios to the dentist — “I’d rather get a root canal than spend the weekend with my in-laws!” — the notion that dental procedures are a negative experience is underscored.
Furthermore, over time a mild phobia might compound, especially if you continue to skip dental appointments. Some people might be embarrassed by the condition of their teeth, while others fear the cost of dental work. But, according to the Oral Health Foundation, that concern might be unfounded thanks to improvements in oral hygiene we practice at home. “You may be surprised at how little treatment you need,” it says.
HOW TO MANAGE YOUR FEAR
It’s never easy to overcome anxiety, but it can be done. First and foremost, be honest with your dentist. “Once your dentist knows what your fears are, he or she will be better able to work with you to determine the best ways to make you less anxious and more comfortable,” Cleveland Clinic says. And if your dentist isn’t interested in helping you, find a new one.
Although it might take some experimentation and time, there are many coping strategies you can implement.
- Before any appointment, ask your dentist to explain the entire procedure to you, so you know what’s coming.
- Make sure they warn you before injections or anything else that might be painful or surprising while they’re working.
- Establish a signal, such as a hand raise, to tell the dentist or hygienist you’re uncomfortable and need a break.
- Ask your dentist to include you in the procedure, such as allowing you to hold tools, if it makes you feel more in control.
Additionally, practice some of your own self-calming techniques, starting hours or even days before your appointment. Distract yourself by listening to music or watching a video if you’re able. The Oral Health Foundation also recommends scheduling your appointment on a day and time when you don’t have any other commitments and won’t be stressed. Plus, bringing a reassuring friend with you might be comforting.
Good dentists will work at your pace and make sure they’re doing everything they can at each visit to ease your nerves. And for many people, the more times they go and build trust with their dental practice, the easier it gets.
WHY DENTAL VISITS MATTER
Oral health is indicative of overall health — and that’s a great motivator to work on your dental phobia. “Without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to oral infections, such as tooth decay and gum disease,” according to Mayo Clinic. Those conditions might become so painful that they’ll force you to visit a dentist, phobia and all.
But there are even more serious conditions associated with poor oral health, including cardiovascular disease, premature birth, diabetes, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, eating disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and even cancer have links to oral health. Thus, practicing good oral hygiene, including regular dental visits, is essential in maintaining your overall health.