Dental Phobia - Where does it come from?

Are you afraid of the dentist? So many people in the UK seem to have dental phobia. Why is this?

For most it seems to be a fear they learnt in childhood that they have never revisited. If you have a fear of going to the dentist have you asked yourself why recently?

I've asked both dental phobia sufferers and non-sufferers what they think about whilst in the dentist's chair. Nearly all admit that they constantly monitor what the dentist is doing.

For sufferers this is an anxiety habit - it's the survival instinct focusing your awareness on what it thinks is dangerous and giving you a startle warning. If you listen to it and experience any raised arousal you are actually agreeing with your survival instinct that it is dangerous. 

Your survival instinct will then do its job and prepare you for fight or flight. This will make you feel even more afraid.

The more afraid you get when the survival instinct gives you a danger warning in the dentist's chair, the more afraid you will be the next time.

But afraid of what?… Very often you are simply afraid because that's how you always feel in this situation!

If you trust your dentist you have no need to monitor what they are doing as they work. If you don't trust them you need to find another dentist!

I know that when I went to the dentist as a child the equipment was nowhere near as efficient as nowadays. My dentist used what felt and sounded like a miniature version of a road drill on my teeth, the vibration reverberating through my entire body. I dreaded going because no matter how well I cleaned my teeth, I almost always seemed to need fillings.

Today my dentist uses a fast, lightweight drill which I barely feel. Once I've had a numbing injection I feel no pain. And yet, until I became aware of my own automatic thoughts and feelings around dental appointments, I was still reacting with anxiety at the thought of going.

This anxiety had developed because in childhood my survival instinct had linked the repeated discomfort and childhood fear with the dentist's chair. Over the years I had continued to buy into this so, despite the fact that it was no longer relevant, the anxiety remained. Each time my brain reminded me I was due to go to the dentist, my negative arousal would go up and so the response was reinforced.

At the dentist's the next day I monitored my own tension and challenged myself to see how dead weight and relaxed I could remain by taking myself off to my own Calm Scene. I imagined the sights, sounds and sensations of walking along a tropical beach...

I was walking at the water's edge. I could feel the soft, moist sand giving way slightly beneath my bare feet… Felt the water lapping around my ankles making my feet feel slightly cooler than the rest of my body. The sea breeze gently brushed across my face and bare arms as I walked… I could feel the soft warmth of the sun, not too hot, just right… The sea birds called to one another as they dived in and out of the water… Far ahead I could see a wooden boat resting just above the shoreline and I was making my way towards it...  

I just kept myself in this lovely calm place in my mind. If it wandered into the present moment I just took it back again. I didn't need to know what the dentist was doing or why. I had asked him not to tell me what he was doing, just to let me know when he had finished.

 In recent years, therefore, I have even come to far prefer going to the dentist to the hairdresser. At the dentist I can drift off into my own world.

As well as being anxious when they are actually in the dentist's chair, just about everyone with a dental phobia will imagine how it will be in advance.

As far as your brain is concerned, to imagine doing something is the same as actually doing it!

This is a well-known technique in sport psychology. By visualising doing certain techniques, the brain learns them as if it doing them for real.

If you imagine going somewhere or doing something, especially if you are linking raised negative arousal (anxiety) to that visualisation, you are actually telling your survival instinct that doing it is dangerous and teaching it to give you danger warnings when you come to do it.

One day I caught myself thinking about the next day's dental appointment and I became aware that I was reacting with raised negative arousal (anxiety). "Why am I feeling anxious?" I asked myself. "Going to the dentist doesn't hurt!" I then deliberately released the tension by going dead weight and focusing on what I was doing instead.

Even if you are afraid of something, you only make it worse by thinking about it in advance! 

If you must think about it in advance, at least try and imagine doing it well. To practice getting it right will help reduce your anxiety if done regularly for a period.

When you are considering ring to the dentist and your brain immediately throw the fear into your head, you can do one of two things.

1. If you have practised mindfulness and being in the moment, just refocus onto the here and now.

Or, if you can't do that,

2. At least visualise yourself at the dentist but feeling calm and composed. This will help the survival instinct learn a new association of 'dentist = ok' to replace the negative one of 'dentist = danger'.

Some people have slightly different fears associated with going to the dentist. Some have a tendency to suffer panic attacks and the moment they are in that chair and feel they are unable to escape, they start to panic. Others feel they are unable to breathe because the dentist has put things into their mouth and this also leads to panic. The solution for both of these is to learn to focus the mind on your own Calm Scene and remaining dead weight. In the initial stages this might be practised in short bursts so that the sufferer has short positive sessions at the dentist. These help the survival instinct to link positive feelings with being in that place.

A final category of those who believe they have dental phobia is made up of those people who more accurately have a needle phobia. If this phobia is overcome, going to the dentist becomes ok.

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