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Differentiating a Fear of the Dentist VS Dental Anxiety

June 10, 2021

It’s common for both adults and kids to experience nervousness about going to the dentist but knowing how to differentiate a fear of the dentist and dental anxiety will help you find solutions that work!

It can be very tough to get your regular dental appointments on the calendar and not just because of a busy schedule. It may be the drilling sounds, or the thought of someone being up close in your mouth that causes unpleasant and stress-inducing feelings. As many as one in three people report experiencing anxiety about dental appointments.

If that sounds like you, there are ways to minimize and manage your unease! But first we have to understand which one you are feeling: dental anxiety or a fear of the dentist.

What is dental anxiety?

Dental anxiety is characterized by a physical and/or emotional response to a perceived threat. This threat does not always have to be physically present, as the mere idea of an uncomfortable situation can provoke feelings of uneasiness and apprehension. In the dental office setting, this perceived threat could be a painful injection or procedure, the discomfort of keeping one's mouth open for an extended period of time, or a lengthy and costly treatment plan. It is important to differentiate dental anxiety from fear and a phobia.

What is dental fear or phobia?

Dental fear is an emotional and/or physical response to what is perceived as a more distinct and immediate threat; phobia is associated with overwhelming feelings of fear that can cause a severe hindrance to daily activities.

Common reasons people fear going to the dentist

  • A painful or unpleasant past experience: Dental fear often starts in childhood. It could stem from an unpleasant or painful past experience at the dentist, often one that started in childhood or from horror stories heard from others or the media.
  • Fear of needles: When it comes to dental procedures, many people are terrified of needles. Some fear that the anesthesia won’t work on them, or that it won’t kick in before the procedure begins.
  • Embarrassment: Whether they let a toothache linger for too long or feel embarrassed about their teeth, some people fear being judged or shamed by their dentist. Others might feel afraid of getting bad news.
  • Loss of control: Many people are uncomfortable with the dentist or hygienist working so physically close to their face. Others feel self-conscious or out of control when they’re sitting in a dentist’s chair with mouth wide open, unable to see what’s going on.

How to handle dental fear and anxiety

If you’re wondering whether you should talk with Dr. Bellingham about your fears and anxieties, the answer is yes!!
The more we know what your fears are, the better we can work with you to determine  how to make you less anxious and more comfortable.

Solutions we recommend at Lakefront Family Dentistry

  • Headphones: Bring headphones to play music that relaxes you. Did you know we have headphones to offer our patients, as well?
  • Nitrous Oxide: There is a psychological response that nitrous oxide has that can help causes a decrease in anxiety and allow patients to relax.
  • Weighted Blanket: The pressure of weighted blankets puts your autonomic nervous system into “rest” mode, therefore reducing some of the symptoms of anxiety, like increased heart rate or breathing. The effect is an overall sense of calm. We do not offer these due to COVID but we encourage you to bring in your own!
  • Aroma Therapy: Using essential oils like lavender have been shown in studies to calm anxiety by impacting the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotions. We do have a diffuser at the office and are happy to provide aroma therapy upon request!
  • Full Explanation of Services: We are happy and always willing to explain what’s happening at every stage of the appointment or procedure so that you can mentally prepare for what’s to come.
  • Stop Signal: Establishing a stop signal, such as raising your hand, to let your provider know that you’d like them to stop what they’re doing immediately is a great tool to use if you become uncomfortable, want to rinse your mouth or need to catch your breath.

What to do if your kids are afraid of the dentist

As a parent or caregiver, you play an important role in making your child’s visits to the dentist a positive experience. It’s normal for them to be fearful of the unknown, or of being away from you -- shown in the form of crying or throwing a temper tantrum.

Here are a few extra tips to help visits go more smoothly:

  • Tell your child about the visit and answer their questions with simple, straightforward answers. If they have more complex or detailed questions, let the dentist answer them. Pediatric dentists and hygienists are trained to describe things to children in easy and non-threatening way.
  • Withhold any unpleasant dental experiences you’ve had. If you act anxious, your child might pick up on that and feel anxious too.
  • Explain to your child how important it is to maintain healthy teeth and gums. Make sure they understand that the dentist will help them with this.
  • Try an age-appropriate book where the characters go to the dentist for the first time.

It will also help to let your child’s dentist know if they’re especially fearful. A dentist who treats children will know how to cope with your child’s anxieties and ease their fears.



Journal of Dental Hygiene