Anxiety about visiting the dentist is probably one of the commonest worries. However it is just that – a worry – for most people. A minority though do suffer from a genuine phobia of dentists, but what exactly is dental phobia? Before answering that question it is probably more worthwhile to answer the general question, namely what is a phobia?
Phobias and their Causes
A phobia can be defined as an anxiety disorder that manifests itself in an irrational fear of objects, activities and situations. The emphasis should be on the word irrational as in reality there should be no reason why people should possess such heightened fear. Not just that, phobias force people to alter their behaviour in such a way as to avoid the one thing they most fear.
Types of Phobia
Phobias come in all forms, but they can be grouped together into two types – Specific phobias and Social phobias. The latter as might be expected covers fears related to social situations, whereby people maybe fearful of looking clumsy or silly. Specific phobias cover such things as fear of animals, heights, blood, plane travel and dentists.
Causes of Phobias
The old saying ‘once bitten twice shy’ is an apt description of how a phobia is thought to develop. A person bitten by a dog after stroking it for instance can react in one of two ways, either stroke the animal again or avoid it. If the person avoids not just the original dog but all dogs, then the phobia develops. In short, it only takes one original stimulus to cause people to become ‘shy of’ or avoid that stimulus and anything like it or associated with it in the future. Phobias are learned.
Consequently, dental phobia would show as fear not just of the dentist, but the surgery and probably anything connected with the dentist from the building to the drill.
As well as avoidance behaviour, phobics will exhibit a number of physiological symptoms as well as psychological behaviours. These include increased heart rate, sweaty palms, skin feeling cold and breathlessness. It is also possible that a phobic will suffer a panic attack; this and other symptoms can even be brought on by simply thinking about the object or situation.
In the case of dental phobia, patients will generally suffer their dental problem until such time that the ‘dental problem’ is more overwhelming than fear itself.
Causes of Dental Phobia
The original stimulus causing the dental phobia will probably never be known; it also often occurs in childhood. However the commonest causes are: bad experiences, uncaring dentists and humiliation or humiliating remarks made by a dentist or some other professional working at the premises. One other way of developing a phobia (although not very common) is via vicarious learning. That is, seeing other people being scared of the dentist.
Treating Dental Phobia
This can be a long process as there may not be just one thing that is causing the irrational behaviour. In order to cure it, patients are best dealt with by psychological therapists who specialise in treating anxiety disorders. In general though, treatment involves the individual re-learning the maladaptive behaviour. It can be done in two ways. First using a technique called desensitisation – a gradual reduction in fear; second (and more drastic) by flooding – literally forcing the person to cope with the object or situation till the fear subsides.
At Harley Street Dental we take the time to listen to our patient’s fears and we will make sure not to force them into something they are not ready. Our staff are friendly and patient, and we have a number of service for patients who may hold with is a common fear of the dentist.
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