It probably won’t surprise you that almost half of the UK population admits to having a fear of the dentist. For some, this is simply a strong dislike for a stranger’s gloved hand poking around in their mouth. Others find themselves facing extreme levels of stress, an overwhelming sense of dread and overwhelming nausea.
Odontophobia, also known as dental fear or dental anxiety, is a major factor in adults avoiding the dentist altogether. Even if someone is suffering from serious oral discomfort, just the thought of leaning back into a dentist’s chair is enough to make them quite literally keep their mouth shut.
Unfortunately, this isn’t sustainable. The health of our mouth has direct links to the well-being of other parts of our body, with studies finding that deteriorating teeth is associated with serious conditions like heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Even if you don’t think there’s a problem with your teeth, a quick check-up with some professional maintenance can boost your self-confidence and get you smiling more.
Understand the cause of anxiety
Firstly, let’s take a look at one of the biggest factors keeping us out of the clinic: Embarrassment. Embarrassment that we occasionally forget to brush our teeth. Embarrassment that our last check-up was ages ago. Embarrassment that the dentist can definitely tell both of these things but makes us verbally admit it within earshot of the entire waiting room anyway.
The thing is, you are not the only person in the world that could take better care of their teeth. Over 80% of the population has at least one filling, 74% of adults have needed a tooth extracting and almost a third of adults have some degree of tooth decay. While this isn’t exactly an ideal situation, it means that the chances of your dentist having seen teeth in worse shape than yours is pretty high. If that person can suck up their embarrassment and head to the dentist, you can too.
Other causes for avoiding dentists are the fear of pain, bad previous experiences and feeling a loss of control. All of these have some basis in logic but can – and should – be overcome.
Change your environment
There’s something particularly unsettling about sitting in the dentist’s chair and not being able to put your feet on the ground. It’s almost as bad as being in the sterile waiting room (with its weird smell), knowing that your name is going to be called at any moment… Or is it worse?
When it’s hard to pinpoint which bit about your dental practice is the most uncomfortable, maybe it’s time to change clinics. If you have been deliberately avoiding the dental scene for a while then you might be pleasantly surprised to find that, over the last few years, a totally different kind of practice has been popping up – the dental spa.
These centres are refreshingly different from any typical practice, ensuring that you won’t find any of the usual triggers when you shop up for an appointment. For starters, dental spas are inviting spaces, styled like a high-end beauty salon with squashy sofas and modern decor. You also get to have a proper consultation with your dentist before any procedures, which puts you back in control. Finally, rather than biting your nails in the waiting room or watching the dental nurse hold scary-looking implements, most spas offer a whole range of relaxing services. For example, you might be offered a selection of pampering treatments or a pair of DVD glasses to keep your mind elsewhere during the procedure.
Don’t be so hard on yourself
You might feel daft explaining your dental anxiety to the receptionist, but it’s such a common worry that dentists are fairly well-equipped to help you with it. Being open about your nerves allows your dentist to gauge the situation and offer practical solutions to make you more comfortable. This might be something simple, like devising a way for you to signal for a break, or something more complex like arranging for a sedative or local anaesthetic to be provided. If you feel like your dentist isn’t sympathetic and you still feel uncomfortable, it’s absolutely worth finding a new practice where you can feel at ease.
Finally, rewarding yourself after an appointment can go a long way. Maybe take yourself out shopping, or book yourself in for a massage later in the day. Ultimately, you want to encourage yourself to establish positive, long-lasting dental habits, so a little bribery never hurts!
Dennis Relojo is the Founder of Psychreg and is also the Editor-in-Chief of Psychreg Journal of Psychology. Aside from PJP, he sits on the editorial boards of peer-reviewed journals, and is a Commissioning Editor for the International Society of Critical Health Psychology. A Graduate Member of the British Psychological Society, Dennis holds a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Hertfordshire. His research interest lies in the intersection of psychology and blogging. You can connect with him through Twitter @DennisRelojo and his website.