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Whirring instruments. Loud suction. A defenseless position. Masked faces. What freaks you out most about dental work? It’s not unusual to sigh before a trip to the dentist — and to give a sigh of relief when you’re done. But real fear is different. It prevents people from getting necessary treatment. This often makes matters worse: extreme pain, tooth loss or gum disease.
Whether your fear takes the form of serious apprehension or full-blown phobia, there are short-term and long-term steps that help overcome it.
Don’t Be Oblivious
You certainly know you’re afraid, but do you know why? Getting to the root of your fear helps you overcome it. After identifying the issue, you and your dental team can address it specifically.
Fear of the dentist often stems from:
- A lousy prior experience: If you had a bad time in the dental chair before, either as a child or as an adult, it’s much harder to go back.
- Bad teeth: If you know you have problems with your teeth, you might agonize over what’s going to happen when you finally get to the dentist.
- Control issues: It’s easy to feel helpless sitting in a dentist’s chair, especially when people are coming at you with metal instruments.
- The very human need to keep breathing: Research indicates that humans have an innate drive to avoid having their airways blocked. Nasal strips, typically used to reduce snoring, help because they open nasal passages.
- General anxiety disorder: With this condition, anything unknown heightens fear.
Don’t Go Alone
Some patients find visiting the dentist more comfortable when they have backup. After getting the go-ahead from the dentist’s office, ask an understanding relative or friend to come along for moral support. Having a familiar face nearby has a calming effect for many people.
Don’t Be a Stranger
Make arrangements to meet your dentist and hygienist ahead of time. Knowing there are real people behind the masks is reassuring. Ask questions about issues that worry you. Knowledge is power. Worries are often a lot worse than reality. Most importantly, tell your dental team about your fear. They won’t take it personally, and they don’t want anyone to suffer. You’re not the first patient to feel that way, and you won’t be the last.
When professionals are aware you’re afraid, they make treatment adjustments. If you’re concerned about discomfort, discuss pain-relief options such as local anesthetic, nitrous oxide, oral medication and intravenous drugs. For example, the dentist might be able to use a smaller-gauge needle to deliver Novocain.
To give you some control, you and your dental provider should agree on a signal that pauses work. This provides an opportunity to relax or calm down. Raise your hand or blink your eyes — settle on a non-verbal cue that works for both of you.
This doesn’t mean don’t pay attention when your dentist tells you to floss every day or take vitamins to strengthen your enamel. You should, however, tune out the sounds of dental work that disturb you. After you’ve discussed your treatment, wear noise-cancelling headphones. Pop in ear buds and listen to music or a recorded book, watch a movie or check out a podcast.
Make sure your distraction is engaging. Find something new and engrossing or familiar and reassuring. If ear coverings aren’t comfortable, plan another distraction. Mentally run through your favorite movie very slowly. Say the alphabet backwards, or count to 1,000 by threes. Go all the way to 10,000 if the appointment is long.
Don’t Tense Up
Use relaxation techniques before — and even during — your appointment. Prepare yourself ahead of time, and then use them whenever you start tensing up. Take a deep breath, hold it for a moment, then do a long, slow exhale. Repeat until you’re calm. Oddly enough, another way to relax is by tensing up. Starting with your feet, contract your muscles and then release them. Move to your calves, then thighs, then hips, and so on.
Don’t Lie Down
Some patients feel helpless when the dental chair is fully reclined. Again, talk to your hygienist or dentist. He may be able to work with the chair pushed only partway back. If you find the prone position physically uncomfortable, use a cushion or pillow to relieve the physical stress.
Finally, if you have a dentist who is not empathetic and accommodating about your fear, it’s time to find a different one. Health care providers and patients need to work as a unit. If your dentist doesn’t take your issue seriously, don’t use it as an excuse to avoid treatment. There’s a dental provider out there for you and some even specialize in anxious patients. Do a Google search for such a dentist your area. Your mouth will thank you!
Use these tips to help you face your fear of the dentist. Dental treatment is important, and you’ll breathe that welcomed sigh of relief once you finally go and realize it was worth it.