Dental Phobia - Where it comes from
and how to beat it?

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Topics covered on this page:
1. How does a fear of the dentist develop?
2. What we do to maintain the fear.
3. How I overcame my dread of going to the dentist and fear of panicking when there.
4. 8 Steps to overcoming your dental phobia.

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

A dread of going to the dentist can develop as a result of several different experiences. Knowing what caused it doesn’t necessarily help overcome it. On the other hand, it is important to work out exactly what it is that you are afraid of now.

1. How does a fear of the dentist develop?

dentist's surgeryThe chair dreaded by so many

For many sufferers it's a fear they learnt in childhood that they have never revisited.

For others it seems to be a fear of feeling trapped. 

When in the dentist’s chair with a mouth full of goodness knows what, it isn’t easy to get up and leave. People tend to become aware of this and start thinking about what would happen if...? There is nothing else to easily focus the attention on, other than the dentist and what is being done in your mouth.

Once your mind gets onto that track, the fear builds, you start monitoring everything that’s going on. Because you can’t watch what’s happening, you may imagine it. Many people start thinking they need to swallow and gag because they feel they can’t. This only adds to the fear. And so it spirals and results, for some in a panic attack.

But... In reality this fear response is caused purely by your thoughts and the fact that you have, by previous experiences, trained your survival instinct to view this as a situation to be feared.

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!

2. What we do to maintain our fear of the dentist

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.

This is a well-known fact that is used positively 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.

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

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'.

3. How I overcame my dread of going to the dentist and fear of panicking when there.

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.

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.

Read more here

4. 8 Steps to overcoming your dental phobia

1. You must ask yourself whether you trust your dentist. If you don’t then I urge you to find one whose skills you do have faith in.

2.You probably find yourself becoming anxious at the mere thought of having to go to the dentist. The link to Startle Warning will explain why this is.

If that’s the case, your next step is to retrain your brain that this is not really anything to be scared of. To do this you will first need to develop a method of moving your mind to more pleasant things. Learn some simple techniques to help you do this by following these links.

3. Having learnt your re-focusing technique, you then expose yourself to possible dentist scenarios such as TV programmes showing dental treatment, images in magazines of people in the dentist’s chair, or, if you can, just briefly imagine yourself at the dentist. Whichever scenario you choose you must divert your mind to your calm scene every time you feel the anxiety start to build.

What you are doing by this is retraining your survival instinct that you are no longer responding to its warnings about the dentist. Up to now, whenever the thought of going to the dentist has entered your head, your survival instinct has issued a “look out!” type warning. It does this because you have been in the habit of having negative feelings about the dentist in the past.

Whenever we associate any negative feeling (fear, pain, sadness, etc) with any situation our survival instinct does its best to learn the link so that, whenever that situation arises, it can warn you of the danger in advance. So, whenever you even consider the dentist, you get a pang of anxiety. You then buy into this by engaging with that anxiety.

What you first need to do is to train your survival instinct that negative emotion and the dentist are no longer to be linked. You do this by refusing to engage with the warnings when they arise. Instead, each time your survival instinct throw them up, you deliberately relax your muscles and focus your thoughts on something pleasant instead. In time this will cause the survival instinct to issue weaker and weaker warnings until the link is eventually broken.

You need to practise this retraining with less strong warnings initially and then graduate towards the stronger ones. Therefore it’s usually best to begin with allowing yourself to calmly imagine yourself being in the dentist’s waiting room, or calmly allowing yourself to watch dentists on TV etc. You then gradually move towards the scarier situations although by then you will have become more skilled at letting go of the warnings

4. When you have spent some time visualizing yourself going to the dentist and keeping your anxiety low, you might make a dental appointment just for a check up. Again the key throughout is that the moment you notice that you are starting to dwell on fearful thoughts you must re-focus your mind onto a calm scene and reassure yourself that everything is ok.

5. It is a good idea to make the dentist aware of your fear.
Anxious patients are an occupational hazard for dentists and most of them have developed ways of helping their patients to manage their anxiety.

6. Whenever you are at the dentist always defuse any anxious thoughts as soon as they arise.

7. When you do feel ready to have some actual treatment, again aim to keep your body dead weight throughout and take your mind off somewhere pleasant. You don’t need to be aware moment by moment of what the dentist is doing! Just let them get on with their work.

8. Each time you manage to visit the dentist and keep youranxiety under control you are teaching your survival instinct that there’s no danger and it no longer needs to warn you. In time your fear will fade away.

If you find it challenging to keep your mind focused on something nice, you might ask your dentist if you could listen to your mp3 player, or music on your phone, whilst you are treated. There is a series of music which contains sounds of nature which I would recommend to help you just drift away to a place in nature. (Solitudes)

You might also listen to an audio book. This would work best if it was a book you had already started and were keen to hear more of as it would engage your focus quicker.

You may be able to treat yourself to overcome this phobia. If you find yourself unable to do this, you can seek help in the form of CBT. For some people hypnosis is helpful but this is not usually available on the NHS.

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

Because it is vital to understand the six factors involved in the cause of anxiety if you are ever to successfully get the better of anxiety issues, I have created a short email course based on the six factors involved in the cause of anxiety. 

This course is FREE in return for signing up to receive occasional updates from Anxaid. Over eight days it leads you step by step through the six factors and is easier than trawling through the pages on this website as the emails can be read anywhere at any time or printed out for reference.

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Specific phobia pages on this site:

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  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Fears and Phobias
  3. Dental Phobia