Is Dental Phobia A Learned Trait?
Dental phobia, and dental anxiety come in many forms. Anxiety may cause you to be slightly apprehensive to extremely frightened at the thought of visiting the dentist. A
phobia, may cause a paralyzing fear that overtakes your entire body. Whichever form, dental phobia or dental anxiety, can be very difficult to overcome. Inability to have regular dental and health care can lead to health issues. Numerous studies have linked diabetes, alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and even cancer to poor oral health. It is imperative to maintain a healthy mouth to keep our bodies happy and healthy. So, the question becomes, can dental phobia be overcome?
Dental Phobia Is A Learned Fear
There has been significant research to show that dental phobia and dental anxiety are linked to life experiences. These experiences can be direct or indirect.
-Direct experiences – are the most common way for people to develop a dental phobia or dental anxiety. Many people report fearing the dentist due to a prior traumatic or painful dental experience. However, it is often the dentist themselves who induce the dental phobia. During the many studies, patients report it was not the dental procedure that ultimately causes their fear. Instead it was the dentist’s attitude towards them. Dentists who were perceived as impersonal, uncaring, or even cold were found to be the root cause of the direct experience dental phobia. An interesting note from these dental phobia studies was, that patients who experienced a painful or traumatic treatment but had a caring dentist, failed to develop a dental phobia. This leads us to believe that dental phobia is a learned trait and can be overcome.
–Indirect Experiences – These can include:
Parental/Peer Influence – Dental phobia can develop from hearing about your parents, siblings, friends, bad experiences or their negative views on going to the dentist.
Media Influence – Many movies like to poke fun at the dentist in good and bad ways. A good example is the dentist in little shop of horrors whereby dentistry is portrayed in a sadistic way. This extreme visual can be quite unsettling, and emotional. The fear can readily be instilled, and dental phobia can develop.
Dental Phobia Diagnosis
Dental phobia can often times be very easy to diagnose. All you have to do is ask a patient and they can tell you how they feel about the dentist. It usually produces a very profound reaction if they truly have a dental phobia. The usual method for diagnosing dental phobia is the use of a scale to assess the level of dental phobia or dental anxiety. The scale consists of a series of questions and based on the answers the dentist can assess the level of your dental phobia. Common questions on the scale include:
-While waiting in the reception area of the dental office, do you feel nervous about the visit?
-Have you had a prior dental experience that was unpleasant?
-While in the dental chair, do you feel uneasy and anxious?
-Do you feel embarrassed that the dentist will say you have the worst mouth they have ever seen?
These questions will give your dentist an assessment of what you are afraid of. Further questioning will help narrow down the fears and their triggers, enabling the dentist to work with you to help slowly overcome those fears.
Breaking The Dental Phobia Hold On You
Overcoming dental phobia can be a very difficult proposition, there is work and time involved for both you and your dentist. The first step is believing in yourself, and your dentist.The second is, feeling that it is possible, and truly wanting to try and overcome it. Dental phobia is a learned behavior and can be overcome with hard work and the desire to do so. The biggest key to overcoming dental phobia is to find the right dentist for you. One who will always keep an open line of communication, is extremely important. This will allow you to express yourself and your emotions before, during, and after treatment.
–Feeling of Control – A sense of control is your right as a dental patient. Understanding this, is key to confidence. Knowing that you can stop treatment as often , and whenever you want can be very freeing.The most common signal is simply raising your left hand to alert the dentist and staff of your need to communicate. A system should be established allowing you to stop for any reason, whether it be because you need more anesthesia, want to rinse out, or simply need a break.You should be part of the process of developing a treatment plan as well as have the ability to fully understand the treatment being offered and why it is needed. You need to be honest with your dentist and yourself regarding how much treatment you can tolerate initially. As time moves on, you will build confidence in yourself as well as increased trust in the dentist and staff treating you. Over time, the type and length of the appointments can be increased. You will be amazed how long you will be able to sit in the chair when it is your choice!
–Feeling Embarrassed or Self Conscious – If you have been ridiculed in the past for your behavior or if you are embarrassed by your present dental condition caused by your neglect, please express yourself honestly and give your dentist a chance to understand your concerns and show you that they care. Please know, that most dentists
do care, and want to treat you with the respect that you deserve. These feelings do need to be addressed, and talked through, so that you can begin to leave them behind.
-Use Of Relaxation Techniques – If you feel tense in the chair, the easiest way to relax is through forms of physical relaxation. A relaxed body promotes a clear and relaxed mind. The human body cannot be physically relaxed and mentally anxious at the same time! The brain won’t process these feelings simultaneously. Physical relaxation methods are easier to accomplish at first as compared to cognitive ones, so practice forms of physical relaxation first. Light meditation methods and music work very well. Light conscious sedation, such as valium, is a great way to start.
Examples of physical relaxation are Diaphragmatic Breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, and various methods taught in yoga . If you induce relaxation in the presence of the stimuli that normally induces your fears (the dental environment), the fear response will be greatly diminished over multiple exposures and you will gradually desensitize yourself to these fears as you build confidence. The memories of traumatic visits will be replaced with more innocuous ones and this less threatening environment coupled with your relaxation methods will help you eliminate your dental phobia.
Repetition. The simple process of repeat appointments, will make you feel more comfortable. As you learn what to expect, and realize that you are in control of the appointment, you will be able to manage more time in the chair. Remember not to wait too long between appointments or to reschedule unless an emergency arises. Merely coming to the office and not having treatment that day is better than canceling.
-Distraction – As you get more comfortable in the dental environment, you can use distraction. The use of an ipod with your favorite music is a common technique. It is only suggested to utilize distraction techniques once you have established some trust and confidence, because your ability to communicate will be decreased, although it is easy to communicate by using your pre-established hand signals.
–Predictable Pain Control – Modern dentistry has many new techniques with regards to the administration of local anesthetics to help block pain. There are many people who have differences in their anatomy that do require more individualized techniques in order to predictably achieve proper local anesthesia. This variation must be respected and communicated to your dentist. The needle itself is generally the minor cause of discomfort, in fact, it is the pressure and volume of the fluids being injected that causes the major discomfort. Therefore, all injections should be given slowly. There are also great differences in the types of tissue in various locations, anatomically and from person to person, that must be considered when administering injections. There are even computer-controlled machines that are now available to standardize the injection process and make it more predictable than the conventional hand-held syringe.
Dental phobia and dental anxiety can be overcome! With proper guidance, trust, patience, dedication, and communication, dental phobia can be beaten. Do not allow your health to be held hostage by your fears. You can live a longer, happier, and healthier life, free of dental fear. Take that first step and find a dentist that understands dental fear, and make an appointment for a consult. Dental phobia and dental anxiety can be overcome!