According to healthcare group Bupa, around one in 10 UK adults suffers from extreme dental anxiety – the kind of fear that makes you tremble, sweat, feel sick and can bring on panic attacks.
Ondontophobia, to use the correct medical term, is a serious condition that increases the sufferer’s risk of gum disease (gingivitis), tooth decay and oral cancer, simply because they avoid going to the dentist unless it’s absolutely essential – and a proportion of these, who are known as dentally phobic, never go at all, choosing to endure the pain of cavities and chipped or broken teeth rather than take their chances in the dentist’s chair.
"For those with who are dentally phobic, it’s unlikely they’d get near the surgery, let alone allow a dentist to look in their mouths," says Professor Gerald Humphris, a clinical researcher into dental phobia from the University of St Andrews. "It can be a problem that’s very deep-seated, often triggered by a bad experience in childhood, and requires sensitive and careful handling from a sympathetic dentist who’s prepared to spend time with a nervous patient. Sufferers may also need sessions with a clinical psychologist or psychotherapist to uncover the root of the problem and help change they way they think about dental treatment."
Professor Humphris is part of a research team who devised the Modified Dental Anxiety Scale (MDAS), a five-point questionnaire designed to screen for and assess levels of dental anxiety. "The score can range from five to 25, with a score of 19 or more indicating someone who is extremely dentally anxious," he says. Nearly 12% of the 11,382 adults who participated in the survey showed levels of high dental anxiety, indicating it’s a problem for a significant number of adults across the population as a whole – in other words, if this sounds like you, you’re not alone.
There are ways to overcome the distress of extreme dental anxiety, however, without having to resort to sedation every time you go for a check-up (some nervous patients do request this, "but the risks attached to general anaesthetic and the fact it does nothing to address the root of the fear means it’s not an appropriate option," says Professor Humphris). "It’s vitally important that you discuss your anxiety with your dentist, and build up a relationship of trust," he continues.
"A sympathetic dentist will stage the treatment. That means you’ll talk about what will happen during a check-up or appointment first and simple, easy procedures come next, to help break through the fear hierarchy. With time and patience more complicated treatments can be successfully completed."
5 ways to overcome dental anxiety
Not knowing or understanding what’s going to happen during a certain procedure will only add to your fear, so research as much as you can and make sure you have all your questions answered by your dentist, says consultant health psychologist and hypnotherapist Dr Sue Peacock, from BMI The Saxon Clinic. "If needs be, book in a 10 or 15 minute phone consultation before your actual appointment," she adds.
Retain an element of control
Agree signals pre-treatment that will help you feel less anxious in the chair – for instance, if you feel panic rising, you’ll hold up your hand and be able to take a break until you feel calmer again. "It helps to know that you can take things at your pace, and encourages you to trust your dentist," says Dr Peacock.
Use breathing techniques to help you feel calmer
"There are many breathing techniques which can help you but this is one of my favourites," says Dr Peacock. "Breathe in through your nose, pushing out your tummy as you do so, for the count of seven. Then breathe out through your mouth for the count of 11. Keep going for a few minutes. It will slow your whole system down and you will feel calmer."
Relax tense muscles
This simple exercise works wonders, and the more you do it, the more effective it is. "Starting with your feet, tense all the muscles and hold that tension for 10 seconds before suddenly letting go," says Dr Peacock. "Move up to your calves and repeat, then your thighs, bottom, abdomen, shoulders and arms. By tensing and releasing all the major muscle groups you become aware of just how much tension you’re holding in your body and how much more relaxed you feel physically and mentally when it’s released."
Go on a mini mind holiday
Ah yes – the good old happy place. "Conjure up in your mind the place where you feel happiest and at your most relaxed," says Dr Peacock. "It can be a memory of somewhere you love or you can create your very own utopia. Use all your senses to make it as real as you can – make the colours bright, the sounds clear and set the temperature to how you feel most comfortable. When you’re completely happy with your environment, imagine yourself stepping into it. Make yourself enter the scene so you are now central to it. Spend some time there. Enjoy yourself on your mini mind holiday. Practice this for a couple of weeks before an appointment you’re nervous about and it will be easier to transport yourself there when you’re in the dentist’s chair. The time will fly by and you will feel calmer and more relaxed."