What is Dental Anxiety?
Fear of the dentist, otherwise known as dental fear, dental anxiety, or dental phobia, is a common problem for many people. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find thorough advice on how to deal with it.
The worst part about dental anxiety is that it often turns an irrational fear into a truly problematic experience. Many dental practices take the time to consider an anxious patient’s needs when given the chance.
But avoiding dental situations can lead to a multitude of oral and overall health problems. As an added problem, fixing out-of-control dental problems is far more expensive than preventative care in the long-term.
Most people who experience dental anxiety have had bad experiences at a dental appointment. However, that’s not the only cause of this fear.
Past Experiences: A painful, embarrassing, and/or frightening deal visit is likely to lead to a future fear of the dentist. In one survey report, 71% of patients had experienced pain, 23% experienced fear, and 9% experienced embarrassment with their dentist. All three experiences in the same percent equated to a 22.4 times higher risk of dental anxiety, regardless of the age when they had a negative experience. Some research calls this “conditioned” fear, where one traumatic experience defines the perception of how all future visits will go.
Media Influences: Sometimes called the “informative pathway,” it’s possible for both children and adults to become afraid of the dentist because they see negative portrayals of dental procedures in movies or other media. The root canal procedure is one that’s often talked about and even shown as extremely painful and invasive in many movies and TV shows.
Modeling Parental Behavior: It’s possible to learn behavior through modeling, or “vicarious conditioning.” This means if you’re afraid of the dentist and your child sees it, they’re much more likely to experience fear in the dentist’s chair, too.
Direct Verbal Threats: It might seem like a good idea at the time but threatening dental work as a consequence of not brushing teeth, for instance, can create a lot of anxiety. That’s why I encourage parents to teach good oral hygiene habits through fun and joyful habit practices and never use the dentist as a threat or punishment.
Fear of Pain: No one likes to be in pain, and it’s true that many kinds of dental work can cause some form of pain. Unfortunately, this one is a vicious cycle — not going to the dentist because you’re afraid of pain will very likely lead to more pain down the road.
Fear of Needles/Injections: It can truly be hard to accept the idea of some sort of injection for dental work. For many types of work, a local anesthetic is necessary to make the patient comfortable, which obviously presents an issue. To make it worse, many people experience a fear that anesthesia options “won’t work,” adding to their anxiety.
Loss of Control: Perceived helplessness is a big part of the level of dental anxiety many people experience. It’s easy to feel like you have no control when your mouth is wide open and you’re “stuck” in the chair.
Embarrassment: Particularly if a person has major issues with their teeth, bad breath, or problems sharing their personal space, feeling embarrassed or even a lack of self-esteem can result.
Fear of Financial Loss: There’s no way around it: dental care can get expensive. If you’re already facing money problems, the idea of getting a huge bill from the dentist can be a reason to avoid a visit at all.
Female Gender: In one Detroit-area study, women were more likely to be afraid of the dentist than men.
Perceived Controlling Dental Providers: A 2018 study found that up to 38% of students see their dentist as “controlling.” This goes to the loss of control mentioned earlier — if you feel your dentist doesn’t work with you on treatment options, it can lead to fear in the future.
The major issue with ignoring a fear of the dentist is that your dental health is going to suffer. Even with a near-perfect diet and incredible dental hygiene routines, most people will still develop hardened tartar and calculus that need to be removed to avoid developing cavities, gum disease, and other problems.
Sadly, dental anxiety drives people to visit the dentist only when problems become symptomatic. This almost always means that a restoration or more invasive treatment of some kind is required. For instance, cavities can be reversed — but you typically have to catch the decay early, before it’s caused pain.
We’re not just talking about oral health here — gum disease, which begins with gingivitis, can eventually turn into a very painful condition. Not only will the disease and treatments all cause pain, but periodontitis/gum disease is also connected to many systemic health concerns, such as diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Avoiding the dentist will only make it worse in the long run. That isn’t meant to scare you more, but to encourage you to address your anxiety sooner rather than later.