Does the sound of the dentist’s drill make you cringe? Does the sight of the needle make you scared and nervous? If so, you’re not alone. It has been estimated that more than half of all the people in the United States will never see a dentist for regular care. Fear of the dentist, or in more severe cases, dental phobia, is the main reason that many people avoid the dentist. And the problem with staying away from the dentist is that small problems soon require major dental treatment! Life Long Dental
Where Did These Fears Originate?
First of all, let’s acknowledge that many people who are afraid of the dentist have a legitimate reason for their fear. Maybe they recall a traumatic experience when the dentist either caused them pain during treatment or embarrassed them by making light of their fears. These memories tend to be especially acute if the traumatic incident occurred during childhood. Vivid memories of the incident recur whenever the fearful person needs to go to a dentist. I have treated patients in their 70s and 80s who still fear dental treatment due to bad experiences they had as children. Modern dentists are well aware of the impact a negative dental experience can have on children, and fortunately, many of them have had training in child psychology. Using that background, they strive to make the early experiences with dentistry positive ones for children.
The past experience that causes the most fear among patients is the memory of a dentist causing them pain during treatment and then humiliating them when they complained. These patients can remember the dentist saying things like, “This isn’t hurting you,” or “Stop being a baby.” These denigrating remarks compound the painful experience at the dental office. Even though the pain from the treatment fades quickly, the insensitive comments made by the dentist continue to live on in the minds of the recipients of those unsympathetic comments.
There are also large numbers of people who are “afraid of the dentist” or of certain dental procedures but have never actually had a bad experience at the dentist’s office. These are people who have heard from others that dentistry is painful — and they believe it! This type of learned fear is called vicarious learning and is quite common.
Unfortunately, there is good reason for people to accept this premise on face value because it is sometimes reinforced by family and friends and also in the media. This is very similar to how we feel when we see a plane crash on the TV news. The vivid pictures and tragic personal stories stir our emotions. But have you ever stopped to think that you rarely hear about the more than 20,000 safe take-offs and landings every day, or the incredible safety record of the airline industry? Likewise, few people share their successful dental experiences. Instead, research has shown that people are far more likely to share and embellish a negative dental experience. I know from years of treating patients the power of vicarious learning. Many times I have to suggest that a patient with a dental infection get a root canal to save a tooth. Right away, the fearful patient will say something like, “No way, put me to sleep and I’ll have it pulled. I won’t go through a root canal.” When this happens, I ask them if they’ve ever had a root canal before, and if it was a bad experience. In most cases, the answer is no. I then ask them why they think it will be painful. They usually respond that they heard somewhere or from someone (a friend of a friend) that a root canal is painful.