Whirring drills. Crying kids. Masked dentists shoving their gloved hands in your mouth. Chemical smells wafting through an office. For lots of people, going to the dentist is more like a scene from a horror film than a routine checkup, and it can cause intense and sometimes irrational feelings of fear.
Dental anxiety is very common, and can grow into a full-blown phobia for some people, says Dr Ken Mazey, PhD, a clinical psychologist and contributing lecturer on the psychology of fears at the UCLA School of Dentistry. People with dental phobias might avoid going to the dentist altogether, he adds, which can cause a whole slew of other issues. But why are some people so sensitive to the dentist, while others are totally chill?
"The reasons vary depending on the personality and experience of the person," Dr. Mazey says. You might have had a traumatic experience at the dentist as a child, which then sets the stage for an anxious reaction in the dentist office, he says. Or if your older sibling or parent always freaked out before the dentist, you could pick up on those anxieties and come to fear the same scenarios.
But even if you don't have a phobia-level fear, getting your teeth cleaned can feel like a violation of your sense of boundaries. "You have a stranger going into your mouth, poking around with all kinds of instruments, [while you're] in a reclined and vulnerable position," he says. "So the nature is intrusive and inherently anxiety-provoking — at least momentarily."
Luckily, there are some effective coping strategies that you can try the next time you're sequestered to the dentist chair. "Anxiety has a cognitive and emotional component, so coping strategies have to address the different levels of the response," Dr. Mazey says. "It's not an overnight thing, because you have to learn how to take care of yourself and integrate bad experiences in a way that won't haunt you," he says. And, triggers can be unpredictable, so learning to anticipate and react to them can take some time. But walking into the office armed with some techniques can be hugely helpful when your anxiety does strike.