In the U.S., about half of adults report visiting the dentist every six months. The remainder foregoes semiannual visits for a variety of reasons: too busy, no insurance, and just forgot. However, according to surveys, somewhere between 9% and 20% skip visits to the family dentist because of dental anxiety or dental phobia.
Dental anxiety and dental phobia are not “all in your head.” Anxieties and phobias are physical reactions that are hardwired by nature:
- Anxiety triggers a flood of adrenaline and cortisol as a response to a perceived threat. This prepares the body for “fight or flight.” The adrenaline increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. The cortisol shuts down digestion and, instead, sends sugar to the muscles to prepare for action. The result is an optimal condition for battling a foe or running from a wild animal. It is not optimal for sitting in a dental chair. The adrenaline and cortisol can make anxious dental patients tremble, hyperventilate, or even vomit.
- Phobia is a form of fear that is so severe that it cannot be controlled. The result is that the response to triggers or the steps taken to avoid triggers become irrational. For example, someone with dental phobia may become violent or sob uncontrollably when visiting the family dentist or brush teeth so obsessively to avoid the dentist that they unintentionally damage the teeth and gums.
However, all is not lost for those who experience anxiety or phobia. Here are four methods for coping with anxiety and phobia so that you can receive the dental care that you need to stay healthy:
Take Care of Your Teeth
Many people who experience anxiety and phobia are triggered by a fear of pain or dental tools like drills. Taking care of your teeth will substantially decrease the likelihood that you will need to visit the family dentist for anything besides a checkup and cleaning.
However, as noted above, over-brushing can lead to toothbrush abrasion damage to teeth. Over-brushing can wear down tooth enamel and cause gums to recede. This can lead to sensitive teeth and expose gums to gum disease.
Proper brushing technique does not require application of intense pressure or use of a toothbrush with stiff bristles. Rather, most family dentists recommend putting a pea-sized drop of toothpaste onto a soft or medium bristle toothbrush, brushing for two to three minutes with just enough pressure to feel the bristles on your gums, and rinsing thoroughly. More toothpaste, a stiffer brush, longer brushing, or greater pressure is generally ineffective or, worse yet, can be harmful over the long term.
Ask Questions and Gather Information
In addition to fear of pain, anxiety and phobia are often triggered by a fear of the unknown. Asking questions and researching online before you visit your local family dental group can help to reduce the fear that triggers anxiety and phobia.
In cases of severe anxiety or phobia, it may be worthwhile to seek out a therapist. For example, some cases of anxiety and phobia are triggered by a fear of helplessness or an invasion of personal space. In these cases, dental anxiety or phobia may be symptoms of a broader issue that can be addressed by a therapist. Moreover, therapists can teach you techniques that have been tested scientifically or proven successful in other patients. Finally, therapists who practice psychiatric medicine may be able to prescribe drugs to address anxiety or phobia.
Focus on Your Body
Once you reach the family dentist’s office, “mindfulness” techniques can help reduce anxiety. These techniques use the mind to identify and address each of the ways the body is being affected by anxiety. Mindfulness establishes a level of calm in the brain as it takes inventory of what is happening in the body and counteracts it. For example:
- If your breathing is rushed and shallow, try to take deeper, slower breaths
- If your muscles are clenched, try to relax your muscles
- If your heart is pounding, try to calm your body to slow your heart rate
- If your body is trembling, try to calm your mind to steady your body
If anxiety or phobia prevent you from visiting the family dentist, there are ways to address it so you can get the dental care that is essential to good health.