Dental Anxiety

Imagine a movie promo -- scary music in the background. In a low voice full of dread, the announcer intones, "It had been a long time. Longer than I liked to admit. But I knew the time had come. I couldn't put it off any longer. I had to face the dentist!" Dun-dun-DUH!

Ok, so maybe it wasn't as dramatic as that, but when I realized it had been far too long since I'd seen a dentist, and an unpleasant twinge in one tooth couldn't be ignored, I knew it was time to find a new dentist. For me, seeing a dentist was on par with, say, crossing a high wire strung across the Golden Gate Bridge. And I'm afraid of heights. So, not something I looked forward to with glee.

I decided to search the Internet for dentists in my dental plan. I found one who was nearby, was female (one of my criteria) and even had e-mail. I e-mailed her that very day and told her what a wimp I was about going to the dentist and that I couldn't even remember when my last visit had been. She wrote back that same evening, assuring me that I wasn't alone. She told me that everyone who walks through her door is afraid of the dentist to some degree, and that her job was to make them as comfortable as possible. She said that if I wanted to, I could spend the first visit just talking to her and meeting her staff.

That sounded doable, so I took a deep breath and made an appointment. I arrived at her office to find everyone calming and friendly. The dentist took me back to the dental chair and we just chatted. Once I had relaxed a bit, she asked me if I felt comfortable enough to go ahead with an examination. To my surprise, I was. I realized that making the appointment and actually showing up had been the most difficult steps. Once I was in the chair, I was a bit nervous about not being in control (let's face it, lying prone while people with sharp implements hover over you isn't a position of power), but I was able to let go of my anxiety and trust the dentist to take care of me.

You call the shots

If the idea of going to the dentist seems like a nightmare to you, it may help if you remind yourself that you're the boss. You can talk to the dentist, explain your fears, and decide how you want your first visit to go. The Dental Phobia Treatment Center of New York says you might want to spend your first visit just talking with your dentist, with no exam at all. You can also agree on some ground rules, such as a hand signal if you want the dentist to stop working so you can take a breather. Once you feel comfortable enough to proceed with an exam, ask the dentist to explain every step of what he'll do before he gets started, so you know what to expect. Keep your eyes closed if it makes the process easier, and if the sight of needles alarms you, ask your dentist to warn you before you get a shot so you can be sure your eyes are closed.

If the dentist you see doesn't want to do what's required to put you at ease, find another dentist. Remember, you're in charge. You are paying for a service, and if your dentist doesn't provide the service you want, find another dentist who will treat you with the respect and consideration you deserve.

You're not alone

Sometimes people avoid going to the dentist because they're ashamed of how long it's been since their last visit. They figure their mouth must be a mess and the dentist will be horrified. But don't worry -- dentists have seen it all. From patients who haven't seen a dentist in years to patients who faint at the sight of a drill. The dentist's job is to treat you, not judge you, and a good dentist will do everything possible to make the visit easier for you.

Don't let your imagination get the best of you

Reality is often tame compared to the awful scenarios our imagination conjures up. Your dentist can give you the facts about the procedure, as well as tell you what steps he will take to make you comfortable. Ask what your dentist's policy is on nitrous oxide (sometimes called laughing gas) or sedatives. Your dentist may be able to give you a mild sedative when you arrive for your appointment so that by the time you get in the dental chair, you'll be relaxed and calm. If you plan to have any kind of sedative at your dentist's office, have someone drive you home or take public transportation. You don't want to make it successfully through your dentist appointment only to have an accident on the way home!

Relaxation tips

The Academy of General Dentistry has a few suggestions to help you relax before your appointment. First of all, don't drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages -- they'll just make you more anxious. Sugary foods can make you jittery, too, so stick to foods high in protein, which have a calming effect.

Try a relaxation technique, such as closing your eyes and visualizing yourself on a warm, tropical beach, or tucked into a cozy forest cabin. Another way to relax is to sit in a comfortable chair and focus on relaxing all of your muscles, starting at the top of your head and progressing down to your toes. If you practice meditation, that should help as well.

Take some relaxing music with you to listen to on headphones while you're in the dentist chair. If you are undergoing a long procedure, some dentists have movies and headphones you can use to distract yourself.

When you feel yourself growing tense, take a deep breath and consciously let your muscles relax -- it's hard to be nervous and scared when your body is relaxed.

Some doctors believe that someone with a true dental phobia -- or a phobia of any kind -- ought to be evaluated by a mental health specialist. A mental health professional can use behavioral therapy or other techniques to treat severe anxiety or panic disorders. If other relaxation techniques don't work for you and you simply can't face the dentist under any circumstances, ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist. It's the best thing you can do for your overall health, and nothing to be ashamed of.

Even with all of these ideas and techniques, you'll probably never actually be excited to see the dentist. But reminding yourself that you're in charge, asking questions, and finding a caring dentist who will work with you, a visit to the dentist doesn't have to be something you dread. It can be just another step in keeping yourself healthy.

References

So What Can I Do About My Dental Fear? Dental Phobia Treatment Center of New York.

"Why Am I Anxious in the Dental Office?" Academy of General Dentistry.

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