Dental phobia comes in many variations. Some are very extreme responses to specific aspects of dentistry. Others involve a more non-specific, harder-to-define fear that revolves around the entire dental experience. These sorts of sufferers often cannot associate their fear to a particular stimulus. In some ways, therefore, even though the symptoms may seem less extreme and easier to live with, these phobias become very debilitating over time. These are exactly the sorts of sufferers who, unable to identify their fear and find a solution, choose simply to try and avoid the dentist altogether.
Avoiding dental treatment can obviously lead to more serious dental complications in the future. So how can dentists help these patients? While someone with a phobia of dentists may pluck up the courage to make an appointment or even get into the dentist chair, anything in the dental environment can trigger their phobia. Their anxiety is often induced and heightened because they don’t know what is going to happen next, rather than because they do.
How do you tackle a fear of the unknown?
Many phobia sufferers manage their condition by avoiding the stimuli that trigger it. If you are afraid of needles, therefore, you may be able to avoid them. If you are afraid of the unknown, it is much more difficult to manage your condition so that it does not impinge on your everyday quality of life.
Difficult, yes, but impossible? No. Let’s say you have a non-specific fear of the dentist. It is not a phobia about anything you can put your finger on, but it is stopping you from getting the treatment you need. How do you go about overcoming it? How do you face a fear when you don’t know what it looks like?
Nowadays, many dentists are trained to offer help, support and advice to patients who suffer from dentophobia. One of the key techniques that dental professionals have become more skilled in over recent years are distraction techniques. These techniques are designed to help dentists find ways to relax patients, to keep their mind off their phobia and to help manage their anxiety.
What are distraction techniques?
The term ‘distraction techniques’ often makes people distrust the idea from the outset. For some patients, it gives them the impression that their dentist will somehow fool them into accepting treatment. Obviously, if you are phobic, suffering from anxiety, paranoia and panic attacks, the idea that you dentist is trying to distract you will not be welcome.
But ignoring the poor terminology for a moment, distraction techniques are actually a proven and helpful tool for dentists. Many dentists use them successfully to make treatment easier for nervous patients – not just those with phobias, but also patients such as children who are visiting the dentist for the first time.
Distraction techniques range from the obvious to the more subtle. But in each case, it is your dentists way of trying to make you feel more relaxed and more at ease in their company. Maybe they will offer you the opportunity to listen to music through headphones – that can shut out the sounds that some phobics dread hearing. Alternatively, if your dentist spots you are nervous, they may simply choose to stop for conversation or offer you a cup of tea before the treatment begins. Some dentists who treat children have even been known to engage in an impromptu sing-along when their young patients start to feel the tension.
Really, distraction techniques don’t have to ‘distract’ you at all. That’s where the phrase is misleading. They are used to relax patients instead. To some degree, all dentists employ them – although you may find that some practices go to greater lengths than others by offering massages or other relaxation techniques.
Is that all there is to it?
On one level, yes, that’s all that distraction techniques involves. On another level, however, there is a separate point to be made to phobic patients in particular. What is most important is that all this talk of ‘distraction techniques’ doesn’t distract you from the key issue: if you have a fear of the unknown, the best thing you can do is get to know it better.
Distraction techniques are your dentist’s way of helping you relax in the practice. At the same time, they are also your dentist’s way of getting to know you as a patient. The better a dentist knows you, the more effectively they are able to treat you. This is true for most people, but even more so for phobic patients. If your dentist understands how frightened you are, they will be more understanding and responsive to your requirements.
How should phobic patients approach their dentist?
One of the biggest problems for patients who suffer from dental phobia is that treatment can happen abruptly and unexpectedly. You rarely get time to prepare yourself mentally and if you do take time to think about it before an appointment, it can spark your fears and create extra anxiety.
One way around this problem is to approach your dentist when treatment is not a priority. See if they will agree to see you for a consultation. You can discuss your phobia, explain how you feel and ask your dentist what their approach is to treating nervous patients. As we mentioned, the majority of dentists are now able to adapt their treatment and will happily discuss a solution with you.
This takes away much of the fear you may have of visiting your dentist while treatment is imminent. It also gives you a chance to get to know your dentist better – to see them without the bright light shining in your face. Trust us, it makes a big difference.
You can also think about whether you can apply relaxation techniques to yourself. After all, why wait until you are in the dental chair before you start trying to combat your fears. You could try learning breathing exercises or relaxation techniques such as yoga or Pilates – they can be ideal preparation for a visit to the dentist.
What most patients forget when they visit their dentist is that the dental experience can be shaped to suit them. Most patients are happy to be treated in the same way. But if you suffer from a phobia, your best step forward is to consult with your dentist to discover how you can create a dental environment, experience and approach that you feel in control of. This way, the unknown may just become something you feel much more comfortable with.