People often use the words "anxiety" and "phobia" to mean the same thing, but they are different. A phobia is an intense, unreasonable fear of a specific activity, object or situation. Phobic patients will have exaggerated or unfounded worries or fears. Dental phobia is definitely a more serious condition than dental anxiety. People with dental phobia often put off routine care for years or even decades. To avoid it, they'll put up with gum infections, pain, or even broken and unsightly teeth.
Dental anxiety and phobia are extremely common. It has been estimated that 9% to 15% of Americans avoid seeing the dentist because of anxiety and fear. That's about 30 million to 40 million people. In a survey 36% of those who didn't see a dentist regularly said that fear was the main reason.
People develop dental anxieties and phobias for many different reasons. When researchers interview patients, however, a few common themes emerge:
Pain and/or discomfort — In a survey of people who had not seen a dentist for 12 months, 6% reported fear of pain as the main reason. This may be because their early dental visits happened before many of the advances in "pain-free" dentistry.
Helplessness and loss of control — Many people develop phobias about situations — such as flying in an airplane — in which they feel they have no control. When they're in the dental chair, they have to stay still. They may feel they can't see what's going on or predict what's going to hurt. It's common for people to feel helpless and out of control, which may trigger anxiety.
Embarrassment — The mouth is an intimate part of the body. People may feel ashamed or embarrassed to have a stranger looking inside. This may be a particular problem if they're self-conscious about how their teeth look. Dental treatments also require physical closeness. During a treatment, the hygienist or dentist's face may be just a few inches away. This can make people anxious and uncomfortable.
Negative past experiences — Anyone who has had pain or discomfort during previous dental procedures is likely to be more anxious the next time around.
There are several relaxation techniques and tools that you can utilize to help you maintain your comfort during dental visits. Many patients prefer a distraction during their visit such as listening to an ipod filled with their favorite music. Relaxation breathing or progressive muscle relaxation are techniques you may wish to try prior to beginning.
Your dentist should always explain the procedure to you in detail and make sure that you fully understand the procedures being preformed. An educated patient will always make a better patient.
A signaling system is always useful if you feel you need a break. For most patients, being able to raise their hand and asking the dentist to stop is comforting and allows them to feel more in control of the situation.
Ultimately the most important part of overcoming dental fear is trust. Finding the right dentist who you are comfortable with and feel that you can trust will make the most difference in helping you relax during your visit.