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How to Manage a Phobia of Dental Appointments

There has always been this incredible fear of dentists. In fact, dental phobia may be one of the most common phobias out there – nearly as high as fear of flying. Nearly 20% of Americans avoid the dentist because of this anxiety, and some even have nightmares and sleep loss because of it.

But dental health is so important, and very little can happen in a dentist's office that is dangerous. That's why it's so important to try to address your fear of dentists and attend your regularly scheduled dental appointments.

Dental Phobia?

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What Causes a Fear of Dental Appointments

Dental phobia doesn't have a clear cause. According to WebMD, as many as 66% claim it is due to a bad dental appointment. It's likely that many of the others that picked it up got their dentist fears from media or from the general discomfort of the dentist's office.

Anxiety itself may also play a role. Take my anxiety test to understand this more. Those that already have anxiety may be more prone to picking up fears of things that are frightening in their own right. There is a guarantee of at least a mild amount of pain, sometimes more, and rarely do people ever have good news at the dentist. At best, the news usually is "remember to floss."

When there is a near guarantee of bad news and pain, it's easy to see why some people start to fear going to the dentist. In some cases that fear can be so pronounced it haunts a person's dreams, and they would rather pull the tooth out than visit a doctor for a toothache.

How to Overcome Dental Anxiety

Oral health is still extremely important. You need to see a dentist, especially because most dental problems are easy to fix if they're spot early.

There are many different ways to try to overcome dental phobia, but it starts by simply going to the dentist and telling them about your fears. If you can get to the dentist, let them know that dentist visits make you uncomfortable. There are usually tricks that they have in person to help you become more relaxed.

But what about something you can do overcome dental phobia at home?

The mind has the ability to adapt to things that don't cause it danger, provided that you keep doing the behavior until it stops causing you anxiety. In other words, by taking a slow approach to getting used to the idea of being to the dentist, you can combat your fear slowly without doing anything to reinforce the fear later.

Try the following:

  1. The next time you have a lot of free time, find a comfortable and quiet place and start thinking about being in the dentist. You're bound to experience anxiety and discomfort over the thought, and that's okay, but you absolutely have to make sure that you keep thinking about it. It's crucial that you do not stop thinking about it just because it's uncomfortable. Visualize yourself there, getting work done, and don't worry about the anxiety. Just keep thinking about it. Try to be realistic – you don't need to pretend it's all rosie, but also make sure your mind doesn't focus on worst case scenarios either. Keep thinking about it, and you'll find that over time the anxiety starts to go away.
  2. Do this for at least one day, and more if your anxiety is severe. But once thinking about being in the dentist's chair doesn't cause anxiety anymore, the next step is to move on to pictures. Have someone you trust find some realistic photos of the dentist's office. When you're in the same comfortable place with a lot of time, stare at the picture. Keep staring at that one picture until it doesn't cause anxiety. Then move on to the next picture. Continue until they do not cause anxiety anymore.
  3. Do this again with video. Thanks to YouTube, you can now view a video of being in a dentist's office. Once again, have someone else compile the videos for you – realistic videos that genuinely mimic what it's like to be in a dentist's chair. Watch the same video over and over and over again until it becomes boring and passé.
  4. Your next step is a bit harder to plan, but still valuable. Call your dentist, and ask if it's possible to come to the office but not go to an appointment – just go and be in the office for a while. Tell them it is designed to help you control your dental anxiety. Once again, you cannot leave until you're not as anxious, and that means sitting there for possibly a few hours while you wait for your anxiety to pass. You can also ask if you can sit in a chair for a while, but there may be legal issues preventing you from doing that. If you don't have time to stick around until the anxiety passes, you can try skipping this step. It's crucial that you never leave before you are free of anxiety.
  5. Finally, go to the dentist. At this point you still may feel a bit of fear, but it should be less fear than you started with and easy for you to cope with it.

This type of systematic desensitization to dentistry doesn't work for everyone, but it is based on sound psychological principles and a great way to start slowly but effectively combatting your fear, one step at a time. you may also want to integrate some of the specific fears in there as well. For example, if you have a fear of a specific dental instrument, see if you can find someone to get the instrument and hold it yourself for a while, until it stops causing as much fear.

Other Ways to Cure Dentist Anxiety

Other experts recommend talking to your doctor about the sedatives that are available. You may not choose to use them, but knowing that it's possible for you to sleep through some of the pain may improve your confidence while you're in the chair. There are dentists that specialize in safe sedative use for their patients with phobias.

You can also try seeing if a friend can support you. Knowing they're there to help you if you feel pain may make you feel less helpless. They can also talk to you while you're in the chair so you can't focus as much on the procedure.

Finally, you should also take action against your anxiety. Anxiety in general often bleeds further anxiety into "scary" procedures, such as dental appointments. If you combat your anxiety and learn valuable anxiety coping techniques, you can use those techniques and strategies to make an impact in your overall dental anxiety levels.

Find out how to control your anxiety and effectively combat your symptoms forever by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test.

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Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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