Why Does Going To The Dentist Cause People So Much Anxiety?

If you are someone who avoids scheduling routine dental visits due to anxiety, you are not alone. This is undoubtedly a common experience, but why does going to the dentist cause people so much anxiety? Some people experience panic symptoms before or during dental visits such as increased heart rate, sweating, or nausea. They may also experience anticipatory anxiety days in advance or difficulty sleeping the night before the appointment. There are numerous reasons as to why someone becomes fearful of the dentist. Below are a few factors that could potentially contribute to why going to the dentist causes people so much anxiety: 

Fear of Pain, Injections, or Drilling

It’s normal to procrastinate things that could cause us pain or discomfort. Maybe you’ve heard a horror story about a friend’s dental experience or had a painful experience yourself. Others are fearful that numbing agents won’t work on them or that they will experience adverse side effects from injections. In terms of drilling, which is generally only applicable for root canals or cavity fillings, this sound can be compared to nails on a chalkboard for some people. 

Fear of Loss of Control or Uncertainty

People who struggle with anxiety spend a lot of time worrying about future unknowns. Cue the dreaded “what if” thoughts! What if I have a panic attack and can’t leave the dentist chair? What if the dentist drills into the wrong tooth? But the reality is, endless uncertainties exist in any situation. There are thousands of uncertainties present every day even when we’re not worried about them. The problem is when we assume that not knowing what’s going to happen automatically means something bad is going to happen. We then might assume that if something bad does happen, we won’t be able to get through it. 

Fear of Contamination

This is a common fear for individuals who struggle with OCD. One may worry about picking up germs or getting sick from the dentist’s chair, the dentist’s hands, the tools being used, etc. These concerns can lead one to engage in distressing compulsive behaviors such as excessive handwashing, teeth brushing, or reassurance seeking to name a few. The obsessive nature of this cycle makes the already stressful experience of going to the dentist that much more draining. 

Previous Traumatic Experiences 

Whether they are related to medical, dental, or other experiences, trauma histories can certainly play a role in dental anxiety. Those with traumatic backgrounds have difficulty trusting others, including their dentist or other providers. Traumatic reminders in the form of sounds, smells, or even parts of our physical bodies can trigger extremely distressing responses and memories. And when this happens, it’s easy to lose touch with the present moment and what’s actually going on in the dentist chair. 

Fortunately, there are many ways to better manage dental anxiety. Talking to your provider can be a helpful first step. Having your dentist explain what is happening and why during each step of your appointment may give you some piece of mind. Mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation can help to lessen the intensity of panic symptoms. Grounding skills, such as listening to music, playing the categories game, or using a fidget can provide healthy distractions. Types of therapy such as CBT and ERP, respectively, can help you to reframe negative automatic thoughts about the experience and to progressively increase your distress tolerance in response to dental triggers. 

Article written by Jessie Buck, LCPC, a licensed Chicago therapist who specializes in treating a variety of mental health disorders with evidence based treatments. To schedule an appointment with her or one of our other therapists, contact intake@cityscapecounseling.com

Similar Posts