dental anxiety

Where Does Dental Anxiety Come From?

In our previous blog post, we explored the impact that adverse childhood experiences (ACE), such as divorce, neglect, abuse, parental incarceration and a number of other factors, can have on an individual’s long-term oral health.

In this article, we’ll touch on how anxiety-based avoidance of the dentist as a child can be carried into adulthood. We’ll also explore the many common causes of dental anxiety and attempt to answer the question: where does dental anxiety come from?

What Causes Dental Anxiety?

We know that the severity of dental anxiety ranges from mild to moderate to severe in individuals. We also know that dental anxiety isn’t confined to any particular segment of the population. It affects males and females alike, people of all ages, and people of every ethnicity and socio-economic group. So what drives dental anxiety?

Here are a few insightful excerpts from the article “Preventing (and Mitigating) Adverse Childhood Dental Experiences,” Part II in a two-part blog series from the Dental Organization for Conscious Sedation (DOCS):

“ ‘Most dental anxiety develops in childhood as a result of frightening and painful dental experiences. If appropriate precautions are not taken, dental treatment may overwhelm the child, resulting in dental fear and avoidance. These fears persist into adulthood, causing 10%-20% of the US population to avoid necessary dental care. Sedation reduces such complications and instills trust in the family and child. (Nelson, Travis M, and Zheng Xu)’ ”

“Anxiety, dread, and avoidance can lead to the degradation of minor dental issues into acute conditions requiring advanced, more traumatic treatments that reinforce anxieties.”

” ‘The etiology for dental anxiety is multifactorial, and hence there is no monotherapy for management,” wrote Dr. Appukuttan. “Anxiety can be triggered by even the most innocuous situations, such as the encounter with the receptionist while scheduling their appointments or clinic ambiance, and thus it is essential that every aspect of the dental practice be appropriate.’ ”

Common Factors That Contribute to Dental Anxiety

The factors that lead to a person’s anxiety or fear of the dentist is different for everyone, but here are a few of the most common causes:

  • Previous negative or traumatic experience(s), especially in childhood (conditioning experiences)
  • Vicarious learning from anxious family members or peers
  • Individual personality characteristics such as neuroticism and self-consciousness
  • Lack of understanding
  • Exposure to frightening portrayals of dentists in the media
  • The coping style of the person
  • The vulnerable position of lying back in a dental chair
  • Sensory triggers such as sights of needles and sounds of air-turbine drills
  • Sensations of high-frequency vibrations in the dental setting
  • Fear of pain or blood injury
  • Lack of trust or fear of betrayal
  • Fear of being ridiculed
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of detached treatment by a dentist or a sense of depersonalization
  • Fear of mercury poisoning or radiation exposure
  • Fear of choking and/or gagging

The Exception to the Rule

While there are numerous factors that contribute to a person’s fear or dread of the dentist – as listed above – it’s important to note that there’s not always a specific trigger or set of triggers that causes such anxious or fearful feelings. The DOCS article explains it this way:

“…fear of dentistry (odontophobia)—the fifth most common cause of anxiety (Agras et al.)—may not be etiologically linked to past negative dental experiences in all cases. For example, 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, experience generalized anxiety disorder (DSM-5 300.02 [F41. 1]) in any given year. Characterized by persistent and excessive worry beyond what seems warranted about actual events, GAD causes a sufferer to struggle with an expectation of the worst, even when there is no apparent reason for concern—that is, no discernable trigger.”

Anxious? We’re Here for You.

If you suffer from dental anxiety or fear of the dentist – whatever the reason why – it’s important to know that we can help. We offer a number of sedation dentistry services that can help ease your mind and ensure your complete comfort, whether you’re needing a teeth cleaning or more involved dental work. If you have questions, you can get in touch by calling (864) 877-9111 or scheduling an appointment here.

About This Article

Various excerpts quoted in this article were taken from “Preventing (and Mitigating) Adverse Childhood Dental Experiences,” the second article in a two-part series. It was written by Kelly John Walker and first published on DOCSEducation.com. Walker is an award-winning copywriter and Senior Writer and Editor with Strategic Dentistry, the parent company of DOCS Education. He holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Science from New Mexico State University and a Bachelor of Arts in English Composition.

About DOCS

The Dental Organization for Conscious Sedation (DOCS) is committed to educating dentists on how to safely and effectively treat high-fear patients. Our membership in this national organization helps ensure that you, the patient, receive the very best care when it comes to our sedation dentistry services.

Founded in 1999 by two dentists, DOCS seeks “to provide a curriculum of coursework taught by a wide range of experts who’ve developed protocols based on studies in pharmacology, physiology and patient psychology. The coursework is offered throughout the year, at various centers across the United States and instructs dentists on the full spectrum of conscious sedation education.”

We’re pleased to participate in DOCS’ continuing education opportunities, and we invite you to learn more about them by visiting their website.

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