By some estimates, 75% of adults in the United States experience some form of dental fear. Looking at that statistic, you would think the word “dental” was a euphemism for something absolutely horrifying: “Geez, 75% of people fear it—it must be pretty terrible!” However, as you and I both know, “dental” simply means “relating to the teeth” and what we’re talking about is a fear of the dentist.
Going to the dentist regularly is an important part of staying healthy, and it’s something most of us do throughout our lives. What is it, then, that bothers people so much about having their mouth explored by a stranger using sharp tools? Maybe it’s the fact that you’re having a stranger explore your mouth with sharp tools. But we experience even more violating, uncomfortable procedures at doctor’s offices, and the fear of going to the doctor is not nearly as prevalent as dental fear.
Why Fear The Dentist?
Here are some theories on what causes the widespread epidemic of dental fear, and some ways we can address it.
There’s no getting around the fact that people can have traumatizing experiences at the dentist. Whether it’s a nerve that wasn’t properly anesthetized or the slip of a sharp instrument, the smallest mistakes can lead to excruciating pain. It makes sense that people who experience these traumas would have a fear of the dentist. However, people with horror stories only account for a small percentage of people who fear the dentist.
The widespread fear of going to the dentist is mentioned in all sorts of mass media, whether it’s cartoons, talk shows, advertisements, etc. This creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which people see that dental fear is a common thing and internalize this information to the point where they begin to fear the dentist too. Their fear then contributes to the overall perception of dental fear, which in turn causes other people to be fearful, contributing to the vicious cycle.
Feelings of Helplessness
Nobody likes to feel like they’re not in control of what’s happening to them. This feeling is particularly bothersome when you’re reclined in a vulnerable position, surrounded by strangers who are staring down into your mouth and prodding you with stabby things. While our rational brains may tell us this is a safe situation, our primal instincts tell us to get the heck out of there. For some people, this feeling is reason enough to fear the dentist.
Fears over going to the dentist are no joke: millions of Americans avoid the dentist every year because of dental fear. Not only will your dental health suffer if you avoid the dentist, but so will your overall health and longevity—studies have shown a correlation between poor dental health and increased rates of heart disease. So how can we combat dental fear and get more people to the dentist?
Since a big part of dental fear is the helplessness people experience at the dentist, one solution is to integrate methods of giving patients a sense of control over their environment. Dentists should communicate what the patient will experience in a gentle but honest manner, and give patients the opportunity to stop the procedure at any time if they feel uncomfortable. The sights, smells, and sounds of a traditional dentist’s office environment can trigger anxiety in some, so if you’re a dentist or work in a dental office try making the space feel less sterile and more relaxing and home-like.
Another solution is something a little less tangible: empathy. As awareness about the causes and extent of dental fear has increased in recent years, so has the push for a more empathetic environment in dental offices. If a patient feels like the office’s staff is understanding toward their fear and anxiety, they’ll be able to relax a little bit. In fact, if you’re an empathetic person who is thinking about a career change, consider working in a dentist’s office. The field of dental assisting requires minimal schooling and is expected to be one of the fastest growing jobs in the next few years. Dental assisting programs don’t take long to complete; you’ll be out of school and on the job in no time, helping to combat dental fear with your empathetic soul.
Finding the Right Dentist
If you’re a patient who experiences dental fear, try looking for a dentist who specializes in catering to patients with dental phobias. If you don’t want to switch dentists, try talking to your dentist about some things he or she could do to make you feel less anxious. If your dentist isn’t receptive to your suggestions, it’s probably time to find a new one.