Dental anxiety is estimated to affect approximately 36% of the population, with a further 12% suffering from extreme dental fear, a.k.a. dentophobia.
The sterile smell, the sound of the drill, and the sight of the dental chair are common anxiety triggers for those with this fear.
Dentophobia may be so pronounced that people avoid dental visits, significantly impacting their oral health. Avoiding the dentist's office can have serious consequences, as we’ll discuss later.
It’s important to face this fear, exploring ways to alleviate your anxiety.
In this article, we’ll discuss cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as well as other techniques you can use so that you can stop postponing that necessary visit to the dental clinic.
Unraveling the reasons behind your dental anxiety is the first step in overcoming it. Much like navigating a maze, you must first understand your current standing – your fears and triggers – to find a way out.
Here are some understandable factors which contribute to dental anxiety:
- Past traumatic experiences. Research suggests that dental anxiety often stems from having unpleasant dental experiences as a child.
- Parental dental anxiety. As children, we can indirectly learn our anxious response to dental treatment by observing the behaviour of our parents or caregivers.
- Fear of pain. You might be worried that a procedure will hurt or that the anesthesia won't work. The anticipation and uncertainty of how much discomfort you might experience can amplify anxiety.
- Needle phobia. Some people have a strong fear of needles or injections, which are often used in dental procedures.
- Embarrassment or shame. People with dental problems, such as cavities, gum disease, or cosmetic issues, may feel embarrassed or ashamed about their oral health. This can lead to anxiety about being judged by the dentist or dental staff.
- Sensory issues. Sensory issues such as those related to autism can make dental visits extremely challenging.
Which factors resonate the most with you?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for Dentophobia
CBT involves understanding the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours – what’s referred to as the ‘CBT triangle’.
It's not the events themselves that are inherently distressing, but rather your perceptions and interpretations of them.
Recognize that your thoughts are essential in how you feel and act. If you constantly dwell on anxious thoughts, it's bound to make you anxious or stressed. CBT helps you identify and challenge these automatic thoughts, giving you more control over your reactions.
While traditional therapy might focus on diving deep into your past, CBT is more present-focused and hands-on. You'll actively participate in exercises, role-playing, or homework assignments to practice new skills and reshape those troublesome thoughts.
How Does CBT Alleviate Dentophobia?
Here's the game-changer: CBT isn't just a quick fix but a comprehensive process targeting your deeply rooted fears.
Let's break down how this therapy tackles dental anxiety:
- Identifying negative patterns. Initially, your therapist will help you pinpoint the thoughts fuelling your anxiety. Are you anticipating unbearable pain or fearing judgment for your oral hygiene? Getting to the core of these thoughts is essential.
- Challenging fears. After mapping out these thoughts, you'll learn to assess them critically. Is your anxiety based on reality, or is your mind exaggerating?
- Learning relaxation techniques. CBT isn't all about challenging thoughts; it's also about learning physical relaxation techniques. Deep breathing and muscle relaxation can significantly reduce your anxiety during dental procedures.
CBT helps rewire your brain's fearful responses. This therapy isn't about convincing you that your fears are unfounded. It’s about equipping you with the tools to manage anxiety and prevent it from dictating your actions.
A review of 22 studies found that CBT (including one-session treatments), had the most evidence for successfully treating dental anxiety.
3 Ways to Integrate CBT Into Your Routine
Understanding that therapy isn't just an hour a week but an ongoing process is very important. Real progress stems from the efforts made outside of therapy sessions. Here are three things you can do to start integrating CBT into your daily routine:
- Journal. Keep a journal to record your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. This will help you become more mindful of the CBT triangle.
- Allocate a specific “worry time”. Designate 10-15 minutes in your day to allow yourself to delve into your dental anxieties. This intentional practice prevents dentophobia from permeating your entire day, giving you control over when and how you address these concerns.
- Make mindful breathing a daily practice. By engaging in breathing exercises regularly, you equip yourself with a valuable tool for those moments of overwhelming anxiety. Whether you're in the shower, driving, or in any other situation, dedicating just 5-10 minutes to breathing exercises helps you remain prepared for anxiety-inducing situations.
Integrating these practices may not always be smooth sailing, and that's okay. The key is to stay committed and remind yourself why you're on this journey to improving your mental wellbeing.
Other Ways to Manage Dentophobia
- Listen to calming music. Playing soothing music with headphones during a dental appointment can help distract you from the sounds of dental equipment and create a more relaxing atmosphere. Choose music that you find calming, such as classical, instrumental, or nature sounds.
- Distraction techniques. Bring your own distractions, like an audiobook, puzzle, or stress ball, to focus on during the appointment. Keeping your mind occupied can help reduce anxiety.
- Bring a support person. Having a trusted friend or family member accompany you to the dental appointment can provide emotional support, comfort and distraction.
- Communicate. Open communication with your dentist is crucial. Let them know about your anxiety so they can adapt their approach. Some dentists are experienced in working with anxious patients and can explain procedures thoroughly, take breaks, or offer sedation options. If you’re undergoing a procedure, discuss hand signals which can mean “pause”, “my mouth is too dry”, “I need to speak”, etc.
- Change dentist. If you don’t have a good relationship with your dentist, switch! It's important to find a dental provider with whom you feel comfortable and trust. When searching for a dentist, see if their website acknowledges dental anxiety.
- Sedation dentistry. Discuss the possibility of sedation dentistry with your dentist. Options include nitrous oxide (laughing gas), oral sedatives, or intravenous sedation, depending on your level of anxiety and the procedure's complexity.
- Focus on the benefits. What are the positive outcomes relating to your dental visits? Keep these in the front of your mind as much as possible. You could even think of a reward to grant yourself once you’ve completed the visit.
- Sunglasses. These can be worn to reduce the visual stimuli in the environment, potentially making it less anxiety-inducing.
The Vicious Cycle of Avoiding the Dentist
When you avoid regular dental check-ups and oral care, it initiates a vicious cycle with far-reaching consequences for both your oral health and wellbeing.
The cycle often starts with the development of cavities and tooth decay, which, when left untreated, can lead to painful conditions such as gum disease and the necessity for more extensive dental interventions.
It’s important to note that unresolved dental infections can also extend beyond your oral cavity, potentially causing systemic health problems. The mouth serves as an entry point to the rest of your body, and infections can exploit this gateway to travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system, spreading to other organs and systems. Treating infections as soon as possible is crucial.
Avoiding the dentist can result in pain, discomfort, increased treatment costs, and negative health consequences.
Luckily, there are many steps you can take to help alleviate dental anxiety. Why not reach out to a therapist offering CBT?
You can also get a free copy of our CBT-based guide to overcoming anxiety, The Framework (65 page PDF), using the form below.
Be patient, and discover what works best for you. Prioritize your health and peace of mind. You’ve got this!