Fear of “the dentist” is pretty common. If you’ve had bad experiences with dentists in the past, it is very easy to make the assumption that dentists, in general, are bad people. There’s a theory called “construct theory”, which states that we have a tendency to ascribe certain attributes to a group of people who have something in common (in this case, dentists), based on our experiences of this group. However, these constructs (e. g. “evil” as opposed to “kind”, “bad” as opposed to “good” and so on) tend to be based on a very small number of observations.
Even if you’ve had the misfortune of running into 10 dentists, none of whom was particularly kind and caring, and two or three of them who were downright horrible, this does not mean that ALL dentists conform to this “pattern”. It simply means that you were incredibly unlucky in the past. Join the club!
Anyway, you’ll get the drift: there’s no such thing as “the dentist”, just as there’s no such thing as “the teacher” (there’s good and bad ones).
It may seem implausible, but there are a lot of caring and gentle dentists around (you’ll meet some of them on this site). The only potential difficulty is finding them! But more about that later…
Being afraid of “the dentist” as a person is often the result of past cold, uncaring, downright mean or abusive behaviour on behalf of dentists you may have encountered. You may fear things like hurtful remarks about the state of your teeth and your oral hygiene, “the dentist” inflicting pain and not caring/not stopping, or being treated as a set of teeth rather than as a person.
Few people look forward to a spell in the dentist’s chair. But serious anxiety prevents millions of Americans from seeking proper preventative care. The consequences of this problem may go far beyond dental pain or lost teeth. Gum disease is a serious infection that can affect other parts of the body. Studies now link it to illnesses including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Fortunately, many dentists are specially trained in handling fearful patients; a variety of methods and treatments are available to reduce pain and alleviate fear in the dentist’s chair. Still, even if your mind tells you you’ll be just fine, your body may still fear that dentist’s chair.
Here are a few tips that may help you overcome your fear of the dentist:
- Go to that first visit with someone you trust, such as a close relative who has no fear of dentists. Some specialists even encourage friends and relatives to sit with the patient during treatment.
- Seek distraction while in the dentist’s chair. Listen to your own music on headphones. A new CD, not one you’ve heard a lot, so you’ll be a little more interested in it. Or find a dentist with a TV or other distractions available in the treatment room.
- Try relaxation techniques. Taking a big breath, holding it, and letting it out very slowly, like you are a leaky tire. This will slow your heartbeat and relax your muscles. Another technique is progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in turn.
- Review with your dentist which sedatives are available or appropriate. Options include local anesthetic, nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), oral sedatives, and intravenous sedation. While oversedation can be dangerous, too many dentists are uncomfortable using any oral sedation. And only some dentists are qualified to perform IV sedation.
If you can’t bring yourself to go to any dentist, you might want to try seeing a psychologist first. The most “tried and true approach” to treating dental phobia (and other phobias) is the thing “direct therapeutic exposure.” It involves introducing the patient to feared items – say, a needle – in a gradual and controlled manner.