Why are so many people afraid of the dentist?

I was recently asked by a patient of ours who is a psychiatrist on how we treat those who have an incapacitating fear of the dentist. Our discussion went on to determine what is common with dental and other fears. She said it would be informative to post this in my monthly article and that it would be helpful to the readership.

I would like to start out by using Webster’s definition of fear: an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger. When I interview new patients who have avoided dental visits for years this is just about what they describe. They have personalized situations that took place at previous times in their lives which I think would be helpful to investigate. My goal for this article is to open up this taboo area and to let those who suffer from dental pain and are still avoiding the dentist because of their fear know that you are not alone.

I will use this definition and see how it relates to what I see in our office:
-an unpleasant often strong emotion: I can tell you that dental fear, like many fears are real from that persons perspective. Even if it seems silly or irrational to anyone else, it is real to that person’s experience. These emotions are very strong even to the point where it overrides the pain from a bad toothache.

Where do these strong emotions come from? From loosing control to someone they can’t trust. I hear of horrible childhood experiences where the patient was overwhelmed by an insensitive and rude dentist. They either didn’t get numbed up or if they were it was inadequate to take care of their pain. I hear of situations where the child was slapped or hollered at. The majority of bad experiences took place when the individual was small and vulnerable. They were helpless and couldn’t do a thing about it except make a statement in their mind like “I will never put myself through anything like this again”. They continue through life with this thought in their mind every time they get a toothache, or reminded by a spouse that they need to get a dental cleaning.

-anticipation or awareness of danger: It is all about control. In the dental chair each person willingly gives all control over to someone who has the potential to hurt them with sharp instruments. Since the mouth is a very personal and extremely sensitive area on the human body, trust must be gained by the patient before they are willing to put themselves at risk again. This trust is something earned by creating a relationship between the patient and the dental professional. The trust factor must be strongly established especially with persons who have been traumatized by bad experiences. Sometimes it means just talking on the first visit in a non-threatening environment like our consultation room. To remove the feeling of danger it may be necessary to use relaxing techniques like our paraffin hand wax treatments, video glasses, music, nitrous oxide or even dream (sedation) dentistry.

I think it is critical to take these patients seriously and not judge their fear. It is real to them and not lecture or belittle those who have this constant burden. Fear can actually have control over oneself and it requires a group of compassionate professionals to work through it. These professionals may include psychologists, psychiatrists, dentists, hypnotists or physicians. If you are reading this and it describes you, then take action and make a call. If you have any questions you can call our office just to talk at (586)247-3500 or visit our website at www.TheGentleDentist.com