The Dentist: is it really that scary?

A mature male dentist is looking proudly to camera from his dentist's office. In the background a dental nurse is prepping for the next patient.

Why do most of us fear going to the dentist? For some the fear has, in fact, become a phobia. If you suffer from any of the following then this may be you;

  • You feel tense or have trouble sleeping the night before a dentist appointment.
  • You get increasingly nervous while you’re in the waiting room.
  • You feel like crying when you think of going to the dentist and the very sight of dental instruments (or of white-coated personnel in the dentist’s office) causes an increase to your anxiety.
  • The thought of a dentists visit makes you feel physically ill.
  • You panic, or have trouble breathing when objects are placed in your mouth during a dental appointment.

The symptoms do seem quite extreme, but for some people, the situation is very real and overwhelmingly stressful.

I suffer from several symptoms of dentist phobia (outlined above); so maybe I do have a phobia? Although I have never had any trouble sleeping before an appointment, have never been physically ill because of it, and I certainly don’t have a fear of the ‘white coats’.

According to Columbia University; people develop dentist-based anxieties and phobias for many different reasons.

However – when researchers interviewed patients they found a few common themes emerged:

  • Pain: In a survey of people who had not seen a dentist for 12 months; 6 per cent reported fear of pain as the main reason. The fear of pain is most common in adults 24 years and older. This may be because their early dentist visits happened before many of the advances in ‘pain-free’ dentistry.
  • Feelings of helplessness and a loss of control: Many people develop phobias about situations (such as flying in an airplane) in which they feel they have no control. When they’re in the dental chair, they have to stay still. They may feel they can’t see what’s going on – or predict what’s going to hurt. It’s common for people to feel helpless and out of control, which may trigger anxiety.
  • Embarrassment: The mouth is an intimate part of the body. People may feel ashamed or embarrassed to have a stranger looking inside. This may be a particular problem if they’re self-conscious about how their teeth look. Dental treatments also require a physical closeness. During a treatment, the hygienist’s or dentist’s face may be just a few inches away. This can make people anxious and uncomfortable.
  • Negative past experiences: Anyone who has had pain or discomfort during previous dental procedures is likely to be more anxious the next time around.

I can relate of all these feelings.

As a child I had no idea that ‘pain free’ dentistry existed, in fact, I don’t believe existed at all.
My visits were very reminiscent of the scenes from a movie starring Dustin Hoffman called ‘Marathon Man’ – a film in which he was subject to torture performed in a dentist’s chair with a dentistry drill (I still have nightmares!).

I remember a lady once told me, who I knew had such a dreadful fear of the dentist as a child, that at the age of 21 or 22 she had all her teeth removed and has lived with dentures for the last 60-odd years.

So; you’re probably wondering why on earth I am writing about visiting the dentist.

I have broken a tooth and no option to do otherwise. I need to make an appointment and have the tooth repaired before it causes unbearable pain. So I am off to my appointment this afternoon to face my perceived fears (based on my childhood experiences).

I have no doubt that a large amount of progress has been made in the field of dentistry, and that it is now less painful than I recall (I will let you know!).

Don’t get me wrong; I may have a fear of the dentist – but I do still try very hard to look after my teeth and look forward to spending most of my later years with my own teeth (and not a set of dentures siting in a glass beside my bed).

I believe that the fear of the dentist is a good example of how we can perceive life based on the experiences of our past. The progress made in the field of dentistry is also a good example of why we should not let our past experiences or prejudices be the basis of the decisions we make now or in the future.

Wish me luck!

P.S. It is the day after and I have survived! Yes it is pain free, but the presence of an electric drill spinning at 250,000 rpm in my mouth and making a terrible grinding noise definitely did not add to the experience!


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