I have always been nervous at the dentist but I don’t know why!
Does the thought of visiting a dentist make you uneasy but you are not able to pinpoint any specific fears?
Some people who suffer with dental anxiety cannot recall any bad past experiences and may even force themselves to attend the dentist regularly despite persistent feelings of nervousness. They may continue to feel anxious in dental scenarios even after they have found a dental office that they like and trust.
This can lead to feelings of frustration and hopelessness. You may yearn to feel “normal” at the dentist and believe that there is no “cure” for your dental anxiety. You may reflect on past experiences, desperate to find a memory that would validate your feelings. But you come up empty-handed.
Reasons for unspecified dental anxiety
Whether this form of dental anxiety came on gradually or has always felt like a part of you, there are a few possible reasons to explain this phenomenon.
Forgotten traumatic memories
First, it is possible that you have had past traumatic experiences that you don’t recall. Research studies focusing on mental health have found that we may not recall particularly stressful, traumatic, or fear-related memories to protect ourselves from emotional pain. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “dissociative amnesia” 1.
Another point is that many people have their first dental visits during early childhood. When you think back to your earliest memory as an adult, it is difficult to recall events from before 2-4 years of age. Furthermore, you may only be able to recall fragments of events from between 3 and 7 years of age. This “childhood amnesia” is believed to be due to natural processes that occur during neurological development 2.
Now let’s consider for a moment that a particularly difficult dental experience occurred during this developmental period. It is plausible that despite being unable to recall that experience, the brain has already been conditioned to switch on that fight or flight response in a dental treatment scenario. This theory can also be applied to survivors of abuse or domestic violence if there are overlapping similarities between the two scenarios (please see our article on survivors of abuse for more information).
Lack of positive experiences
Secondly, although you cannot recall any negative experiences, you may not be able to recall any positive experiences either.
Positive experiences reinforce a sense of safety and security. Therefore, a lack of positive experiences to reference could leave you feeling vulnerable in the dental chair. Maybe you just never connected with your past dental providers or they weren’t particularly personable. Perhaps you just felt like a “set of teeth” or a “mannequin head” when you had dental work completed in the past.
All these experiences may contribute to a sense of generalized anxiety in the dental office.
Fear of medical settings and procedures
Thirdly, some people have generalized anxiety surrounding medical scenarios for various reasons.
If you find that doctors, hospitals, or medical offices in general make you nervous, this could be a contributing factor. If this is the case, your dental anxiety may be falling under a larger umbrella of a somewhat related but different phobia or fear such as a fear of doctors (iatrophobia) or a fear of medical procedures (tomophobia).
Now what do I do?
The tricky thing about unspecified dental anxiety is that it does not seem to have triggers or causes that you can directly address. In a sense, there is no specific problem to solve. Here are some helpful tips to cope with your anxiety.
1. Focus on the outcome, not the cause.
You may never know why you feel the way you do and the fact of the matter is, you don’t owe an explanation to anyone. While it is helpful to know specific fears, it is not completely necessary. Let your dentist know that you are anxious and work with them on using strategies that give you an increased sense of control. Examples include stop signals, rest breaks, and tell-show-do techniques. Or use distraction methods such as listening to music or virtual reality/movie glasses to take your attention away from the dental environment.
2. Establish rapport with the dental staff.
If you don’t “click” with a particular office, keep looking until you find the right one. It is harder to trust somebody that you don’t like on a personal level or feel comfortable communicating with about your feelings. The trust may not be there immediately but that will come with some time and should help to alleviate some of your anxiety in the long term.
3. Journal your positive experiences.
If you have positive experiences, write about them shortly after your appointment. Include as many details as you can remember. You can read over and reflect on these experiences when you feel anxious before your next appointment. This can help lessen your anxiety about your upcoming appointment.
4. Don’t allow yourself to fall into avoidance patterns.
Many people find they feel more comfortable at the dentist when they have been there more recently. Keep the momentum going with your appointments by stopping by the reception area at the end of your appointment to schedule the next one before ever leaving the office.
5. Seek peer support.
Whether family, friends, support groups, or anonymous members on an online forum, it can be comforting to share your fears with somebody who will understand and help you to not feel so alone in your anxiety. Sometimes just talking about your anxiety can alleviate some of your stress before an upcoming appointment.
6. Talk to a therapist or mental health counselor.
Mental health professionals are trained in certain approaches (i.e. CBT, desensitization, etc.) to combat anxiety and make coping with dental appointments easier.
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Sources of Information
- Otgaar H, Howe ML, Patihis L, Merckelbach H, Lynn SJ, Lilienfeld SO, Loftus EF (November 2019). “The Return of the Repressed: The Persistent and Problematic Claims of Long-Forgotten Trauma”. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 14 (6): 1072–1095. doi:10.1177/1745691619862306
- McNally RJ (September 2007). “Dispelling confusion about traumatic dissociative amnesia“. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 82 (9): 1083–90. doi:10.4065/82.9.1083