Special Needs Dentistry/Psychology - Overcoming Dental Phobia

Afraid of the Dentist?

Have you heard of dental phobia and its siblings – odontophobia, dentophobia, dentist phobia, and dental anxiety? They all mean the same thing – a fear of dentistry and dental care. These terms have been so loosely used nowadays as an excuse to escape dental visits, but they should only be used if the fears are traumatic and directly affecting ones life and functioning, somewhat like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As much as I hate to say it, going to the dentist seems like a traumatic experience to many. From the sounds of the dental tools to the antiseptic smell lingering in the room, people have many reasons why they dislike going to the dentist.

However, just as any phobia, there are means to overcome them. Here, I will go through x steps to eradicate your child’s (or even your own) fear of the dentist.

1. Identify and acknowledge your fear of going to the dentist

There are so many reasons why someone may be afraid of visiting the dentist. It could be due to traumatic childhood experiences, discomfort, learned fears (from listening to horror stories), feeling of vulnerability, etc. Regardless of the reasons, the first thing you have to do is to recognise that you have a fear or unwillingness of going to the dentist, and that is a battle half won.

I would also like to tell you that there is nothing to be ashamed of, and it is normal to be fearful of the dentist. As what Science Nordic has kindly shared, there are biological reasons as to why people fear the dentist – it is a survival instinct to ensure the breathing passage is unblocked, hence one would feel uncomfortable when dental tools are in ones mouth. But don’t worry, this fear can be reduced with diligence and mindfulness when adhering to the following steps.

2. Gradual exposure

As what gradual exposure means, you have to slowly prepare and desensitise yourself for dental visits. It can start from rules as simple as looking at dental pictures for 1 minute a day, then lengthening it to 5 minutes, and so on (Google images can help you with this). Make it fun – reading dental comics helps too! You can also read up on various dental problems to have a slight inkling of the kind of treatment you may require (that’s what Ask The Dental Guy is for anyway!). After that, try watching dental videos (they don’t have to be bloody, animations work as well!). Once you feel more comfortable, lets start planning a trip to the dentist.

3. Dental trial

Did you know that you can book dental consultations without sitting on the dental chair? This will cost money (you still need to pay for dental consultation) but if it helps you to calm down and be more prepared for the next dental appointment, why not? Spend the time talking to your dentist about your fears and ask if he/she can give you a brief orientation of the tools that he/she will be using and if he/she can let you touch the tools. The dentist will also give you anti-anxiety pills if you request for it, or if he/she deems that you may need it. You can also practice lying on the dental couch and applying some relaxation techniques (as explained later). This could help you to get ready as well!

4. Get someone to accompany you

This works because you know that someone would be waiting for you and ready to protect you from the fearful dental appointment. Get someone you trust to sit with you inside or outside of the dental room. Having someone nearby helps calms the nerves and assure you that you are in a safe place.

5. Relaxation techniques

Despite someone being with you, the treatment will ultimately be done on you, so you will need to self-regulate during this period to prevent anxiety or fears from resurfacing.

Some techniques here:

1. Mindfulness breathing exercises

Breathe in and out. Count your breathing 1 to 5 while breathing in, and 5 to 1 when breathing out. While counting, you may realise that your thoughts will linger to other things such as the fact that you are in a dental chair. Acknowledge and counter those thoughts, then tell yourself to continue breathing and counting – e.g. John (your name), I know that you are feeling scared with all these weird tools in your mouth (your fear), but don’t worry, let’s go back to counting, 1 2 3 4 5 (breathe in as you count 1 to 5).  Before you know it, the dentist would be asking you to rinse up and leave the room!

2. Breathing in positivity, breathing out negativity

This is my favourite, I do it all the time even when I’m not in the dental room. This is even simpler than mindfulness, it is just controlling of your breath and thoughts. When you breathe in, think of what you want inside of you (i.e. hope, strength, sunshine, etc.). Think of the positivity flowing through the veins of you body as you continuously breathe in. Then, breathe out negativity. Think of the things you want to remove from yourself (i.e. fears, anxieties, worries, etc.).

Just to share, this is my usual thought process: “Breathe in all the goodness in this world, let it flow from my nose to my throat and down to my tummy. Let this goodness go down to my knees and shin and to my toes. Now lets breathe out all the poison in me. Up from my toes to my hips and chest and back out of my nose.”

But seriously I’m not a meditation guru, you can youtube some other meditation techniques that may help you too!

3. Listening to music

Breathing exercises may not work for all, especially those with a short attention span. As such, direct methods like listening to music can help to block out sounds of the dental tools. Blast your favourite tunes and enjoy the melodies while your dentist quickly completes your treatment. If not, noise-cancelling headphones could work too!

4. Bring an item of comfort

If someone is unable to follow you, you can bring something that gives you comfort. Some people have brought their favourite bolsters and soft toys, and it’s perfectly fine (please remember to wash them when you get home too)! This will help you to feel better and also know that you are safe!

5.  Distract yourself – think about something else

Think about your crush, your work, what your mom is cooking for dinner, etc. There are just so many things to think about, and treatment will be done soon enough!

6. Reward yourself

Congratulations, you have survived a dental visit! Now go reward yourself with some ice cream or a crazy adventure! Just remember to brush and floss twice daily so that you won’t have to go back to the dentist so soon. But even so, you will be more than prepared with these techniques!

Good luck!

The Dental Assistant?


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