How to Stop Dental Fears – Part 2 of 2
By Chesterfield Dentist Jennifer Wheeler, DMD
How do men, women and children develop fear of going to the Dentist?
To begin with, there’s never been a human being born with a fear of the Dentist. That leaves us with once logical conclusion:
Dental fear is a “learned” and/or acquired emotion. Now without overlooking the obvious I understand that some restorative dentistry patients have acquired their dental fear because of one or more visits to the dentist that were less-than pleasant.
Some general dentistry patients experience dental fear because they feel a total loss of control over their environment once arrive. And still others may be afraid due to stories they have heard, movies they saw or other indirect experiences.
The message conveyed to a child from a scared parent who just had an unexpected mishap occur during a cosmetic dentistry procedure might be that going to see a dentist is something to be afraid of. Such messages may cause individuals to avoid treatment and not have any opportunity to learn that things can be different.
Fear and anxiety can also be reinforced inadvertently.
Think about it this way; try to remember a time when you were really afraid of something, do you remember how your body felt? Was your heart beating quickly, palms sweaty, stomach in a knot?
Those and other symptoms of being afraid are all unpleasant feelings.
So, if someone who is already afraid forces themselves to go have dental treatment and re-experiences those same bad feelings during the appointment, then what they will remember afterward is those same unpleasant feelings.
It doesn’t matter how friendly the dentist is or how pain free and pleasant the treatment is. What you remember is the feeling of being afraid, thus reinforcing the idea that there is something to be afraid of.
In fact, dental fear begins at the subconscious level.
People have what we call an “automatic fear response. Several years ago I met a woman (we’ll call her “Jill”) who gave me a rather detailed description of how she feels the moment she arrives at her Dentist’s office:
“I feel like something just takes over and I begin to sweat and my stomach tightens up. I don’t really have any control over it.”
Since this automatic fear response is subconscious, you can’t make it go away using logic or reason.
Telling Jill that “there is nothing to be afraid of” won’t help.
In fact it might make things worse because it could sound like you are saying there is something wrong with her.
So, how do we change this pattern of fear and reinforcement? Let’s find out.
Getting to Calm and Safe
As we said earlier, it’s possible, even for those people who are the most fearful, to reduce their fear and to learn to have dental treatment in a way that feels calm and safe.
The basic idea is really very simple. In order to counteract past bad experiences you need to have new positive experiences which lead to the development of improved feelings and attitudes.
The more bad experiences you have had or the longer they have gone on, the more good experiences you need before you will have different reactions to the same situation.
Dental health professionals know that your mouth is a very personal place and trust is a big part of allowing us to partner in your care.
If you are very fearful, how do you have a “good experience” with dental care?
- Tell your dentist you are afraid, even when setting up an appointment and make sure the dentist is prepared to listen. If you can’t talk about it you can’t get over it.I am very careful to listen to what patients like Jill say and try to understand there “story.” I ask patients like Jill to tell me about her fear of dental treatment. “I’m glad you asked” she says. “I always felt that dentists didn’t really want to know.”
- The dentist must listen carefully to you in an accepting and non-judgmental way. I avoid telling patients like Jill that things will be different, that there is nothing to worry about, or that there is anything wrong with her being afraid.I also avoid any explanations about dental disease or dental procedures until I’m sure that Jane knows that I understand her fear and am committed to working with her to help her overcome it. I know that the best way for me to convey that I care is to listen, not to provide explanations.Patients like Jill should feel confident that she is not being judged. Of course, some people are better at this than others. If you are afraid, find a dentist who listens to you and who cares about working with you to get over your fear.My staff and I have invested a lot of effort to help our patients in this area. If you start your work with a psychologist, make a transition from working with the psychologist to working with a dentist who understands and can follow the principles involved in reducing dental fear.
- When working to reduce fear, only do things that you can do with mild or no anxiety. I reassure our patients like Jill that they’re in control of the situation at all times.I need them to tell me exactly what she is afraid of since it’s different for everyone. It’s critical that I understand what brings on their particular fear reactions. We will start by having them try to do those things that they feel they can do fairly easily.The idea is for them to have the goal of being able to leave each visit saying “that was OK; I could certainly do that again if I needed to.”
- Set up an agreement so you can take whatever time you need to get over your fear and not be rushed to do things you are not ready to do. Let’s stop to emphasize the last point, since this can be a significant shift in expectations.In order to help someone get over their fear of dental procedures, the goal for each visit is for you to have a good experience rather than getting a particular procedure finished.Remember, if you push yourself to do something you are really afraid of, you will remember how unpleasant your fear is and reinforce the fear rather than diminish it.
- If you are afraid, work with your dentist and make a specific plan to reduce your fear. Don’t just concentrate on “fixing your teeth!”
It’s critical that both the dentist and patient agree that becoming comfortable with dental procedures is something that they are going to work on.
Understand that you and your dentist must consider your internal anxiety feelings by working at a pace where you will be more comfortable and trusting.
Set up an agreement with your dentist to talk about the time and fees associated with treatment so you can comfortably overcome your fear and not be rushed to do things you are not ready to do.
This may result in a procedure taking a little longer than usual to complete or spreading out appointments over the course of time.
If you would like to schedule a consultation with me (there’s no charge) I’d be delighted to sit down with you to discuss how we may be the best choice for your dental needs and to help you overcome your dental fears.
I’m Chesterfield Dentist Jennifer Wheeler, DMD and the Midwest Dental Team and I want to encourage you to call us today at 314-576-3737! I promise… you’ll be glad you did.