3 Natural Ways to Tackle Dental Anxiety

Do you fear going to the dentist? Dental anxiety plagues 75% of the U.S. population. Find out how to tackle dental anxiety to maintain healthy teeth and gums.

3 Natural Ways to Tackle Dental Anxiety

Photo from John Twohig on Flickr.  

Do you fear going to the dentist? Do you worry that your dentist will tell you that you need to do a better job at brushing or flossing or that you have another cavity?

Going to the dentist can be a stressful time, especially when he tells you that you need some dental work. And not just a minor drilling to fill a cavity, but worse… a root canal. The visit can turn into an expensive one. When money is tight, it's no wonder a lot of people avoid going to the dentist. But that won't change the fact that a dental visit is necessary to prevent and treat serious dental issues.

If you suffer from dental anxiety, you are not alone. A study on dental anxiety has shown that approximately seventy-five percent of adults experience some form of anxiety relating to a dental experience. Up to twenty percent put off going to the dentist unless absolutely necessary. And between five and eight percent of Americans avoid visiting the dentist altogether due to fear.

Reasons Behind Dental Anxiety

There are many reasons behind why people experience anxiety when it comes to going to the dentist. According to Peter Milgrom, DDS, director of the Dental Fears Research Clinic at the University of Washington and author of Treating Fearful Dental Patients, about two-thirds of patients who experience dental anxiety relate their fear to a bad experience in the dentist's office. The remaining third have other reasons such as a mood or anxiety disorder or other trauma in their past.

Fear of pain at the dentist's office isn't the only reason for dental anxiety. Another reason to experience anxiety is that sitting in the dentist's chair leaves one feeling vulnerable, unable to control the situation when he can hardly talk or respond to questions while the dentist hovers over him. This situation can lead to anxiety because the patient doesn't feel in control.

While the number of people who are thrilled to go to the dentist is low, it's not impossible to let go of the anxiety associated with dental visits.

Why Should We Let Go of Dental Anxiety?

Anxiety doesn't just affect your dental health; it affects your overall health because it causes your body to release a hormone called cortisol. This hormone quickens your heart rate, increases the amount of oxygen to the brain, and gives you more energy to help you deal with the stress. This is what happens in a fight-or-flight situation. It's a normal occurrence. The release of cortisol can actually cause increases in blood sugar levels and triglycerides. But when you have anxiety frequently, your brain limits the amount of cortisol that it sends through the bloodstream which can result in fatigue. It can make you feel tired all day.

Long-term fatigue affects our lives in a number of ways. We can experience low interest levels, a lack of motivation, and a disinterest in social activities. Not only can fatigue mess with interest in the bedroom, but chronic stress, specifically, can impact a woman's production of estrogen, which keeps the reproductive system in working order, causing a dip in sex drive. Fatigue can also upset your digestive system by affecting the hormones released by the thyroid glands and it can cause sex hormones called androgens to spike which then cause acne to flare up.   

Another symptom of chronic stress is the inability to remember things. Certain types of stress, such as traumatic stress, can cause the hippocampus, the area of the brain where memories are stored, to shrink, making it more difficult to remember things like facts and lists and to form new memories.

Stress also affects the way fat and sugar get metabolized in the body. This can result in gaining weight.

Instead of worrying about our dental visits, we can take some measures to keep our anxiety to a minimum. Here are three natural ways to tackle dental anxiety.

1. Practice Good Dental Hygiene

Practicing good dental hygiene is a must for keeping dental anxiety to a minimum. When we are taking the necessary steps to ensure strong and healthy teeth, we don't have a lot to worry about. When we go to the dentist for a cleaning after taking really good care of our teeth and maintaining a healthy diet, we should get a clean bill of health for our mouths.

But good dental hygiene requires more than just brushing our teeth two to three times a day, flossing at least once a day, and getting your teeth cleaned during your regular dental appointment. It also requires eating a well-balanced diet.

It isn't surprising that what we eat affects our teeth. If we are consuming the right foods that support good overall health, such as the superfoods we talked about in an earlier article, our bodies have the opportunity to keep our teeth and gums healthy.

Good dental health also means maintaining a good amount of saliva in our mouths and maintaining a good balance of bacteria. Saliva is responsible for washing away food particles and bacteria. If our bodies, more specifically our salivary glands, don't create enough saliva, we can end up with dry mouth, creating an ideal environment for bacteria growth.

Some ideas for increasing saliva production include eating cheese or apples, chewing sugar-free gum, and practicing yoga. Poses such as forward bends, twists, and inversions are known to increase saliva production.

Being mindful of how we treat our teeth and mouths can positively affect our dental health as well. This includes swishing with water and waiting a good thirty minutes before we brush our teeth after consuming acidic foods and beverages such as orange juice. The acid in acid-rich foods and liquids helps break down the enamel on our teeth. By swishing with water after eating acidic foods or consuming a food that neutralizes the acid, we give our teeth a chance to remineralize before we scrub them with a toothbrush.

Other ways we can improve our dental health include oil pulling with an edible oil such as sesame oil or coconut oil. Oil pulling is an ancient practice for the purpose of pulling toxins out of the body. While scientific research on oil pulling is low, many people claim to receive substantial health benefits from the practice. Specifically, it is known to reduce the bacteria in the mouth, seeping deep into the gum pockets and killing the bacteria that cause tooth decay, cavities, and gum recession. It is thought that the bacteria that get into our gum pockets get absorbed into the bloodstream, wreaking havoc on our immune systems and our heart and lung health.

Additionally, putting a stop to bad habits such as nail biting, ice chewing, and using our teeth as tools will help ensure we experience good dental health, giving a good bill of health to our teeth. To read more about how you can ensure good dental health, check out our article on common habits that are actually hard on our teeth [common habits that are actually hard on our teeth.

We have a golden opportunity to control our own dental health through diet and proper home dental care. Putting these things into practice will help us keep our dental anxiety in check so that going to the dentist won't be a bad or horrifying experience.

2. Exercise

When our bodies undergo the fight or flight reaction associated with stress or anxiety, our brains signal the release of cortisol, the hormone we talked about earlier. This handy hormone gives us a boost of energy to either fight or run away. But when we go through chronic stress or anxiety, eventually our bodies start to limit the amount of cortisol that gets released into the bloodstream. This results in feeling tired.

In order to keep our bodies functioning the way they were designed to, we need to make use of the cortisol that gives us the energy boost. Experts say that by exercising about three hours per week, we can reward our bodies and make use of that extra energy.

Experts, in general, recommend that we get thirty minutes of exercise each day.

3. Reduce Stress

Stress caused by other factors such as work-related situations, overwhelm, or frustrations can exacerbate the anxiety we have about our dental care and treatment. By finding outlets for our stress and ways to reduce it, we can rest easier. It seems that stress is compounding. If we have stress is one area of our lives, we're bound to develop stress in another area. Remember that like breeds like. So, by curbing stress, we can help reduce our dental anxiety.

We know that exercise can help us reduce stress, but there are other ways to do that as well. Yoga, for instance, has been proven to be an effective stress reliever. If done right, it can even be a great cardio workout. Yoga helps us clear our minds and practice breathing techniques that soothe the knots in our stomach. Just the simple process of taking a deep breath helps to ease the stress.

Another way to reduce stress is to find a calming or stress relieving activity, such as going for a walk, journaling, or coloring. Adult coloring books are all the rage right now, but the concept of coloring to reduce stress and awaken one's creativity has actually been around for a while. There hasn't been much research done on coloring as a therapeutic tool but one study on college students discovered that coloring pre-drawn patterns significantly reduced signs of stress and depression.

Choosing an activity such as coloring before bedtime may also help you get better sleep. Exposure to the blue light emitted from an electronic device actually disrupts the circadian rhythm and contributes to insomnia as it reduces the levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone.

Some experts, however, believe coloring is a mind-numbing activity and recommend engaging in activities that stimulate the brain. Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, a leading international art therapy expert, stated in Psychology Today that "the motion of crayon or pencil moving back and forth within premade boundaries is perceived as a form of containment, mastery and mind-numbing escape from the here-and-now." But there is no denying that this activity can reduce stress, improve cognitive abilities, increase attention span, and enhance the quality of life.

The important thing is to find an activity that helps you clear your thoughts, calm your nerves, and reduce the tension in your body.  

Another thing to keep in mind is that stress could also be masking an underlying health issue such as a poor gut. While we think it is stress we suffer from, it could very well be a digestive issue like leaky gut syndrome or digestive system damage caused by frequent antibiotic use. If you suspect a compromised digestive system is the cause, it's a good idea to visit with a doctor who specializes in internal medicine or holistic healing so you can get this issue resolved.

BONUS TIP: Talk to your dentist (and pick the right one)

Believe it or not, there are dentists who specialize in treating fearful patients. Some dentists go out of their way to create a nonthreatening environment for patients who experience dental anxiety. Some offices and waiting rooms don't even resemble a typical dental environment. Jack Bynes, DMD, works in a Connecticut office located in a renovated historic gristmill. The treatment room overlooks a waterfall and the waiting room contains a fireplace and soothing photography. That's a far cry from the disturbing images and posters that depict gum disease and other horrible dental conditions.

Dentists who create this type of environment understand the fight or flight instinct that fearful patients experience. They understand that by removing typical dental office cues, they can help put patients at ease. Another way a dentist can help a patient with anxiety is to talk with the patient in his office prior to putting him in the dental chair to let him know he has control over the situation. If the patient becomes uncomfortable during the procedure, he has the option to leave. Enhancing the feeling of control can be done using simple methods such as asking the patient for permission to continue, explaining what the patient will soon feel and for how long, making time for breaks, and letting the patient stop the procedure with a simple signal.

So, if you have been putting off going to the dentist because you experience dental anxiety, find a good dentist who specializes in treating patients with dental phobias. Before scheduling an appointment, ask to speak with the dentist so he can help put you at ease. If the receptionist discounts your need for assurance or if the dentist never calls you back, find another one. Evaluate the dentist's level of patience and how well he puts you at ease over the phone or in his office. Remember that not all dentists who say they cater to fearful patients have the patience to keep a patient at ease.

Another thing to keep in mind as you search for a good dentist is to look for one whose primary focus fits with your goals. Some dentists are progressive when it comes to dental treatment, erring on the side of prevention which usually means they suggest more fillings and other preventive treatment. And other dentists are conservative. Conservative dentists are ones who are leery about performing procedures that they don't deem as necessary.

So, if you would prefer to do anything and everything that can help prevent dental issues, choose the progressive type. But if you are reluctant to have more work done than is absolutely necessary, pick a dentist who is conservative. An even better dentist is one who helps you find natural ways to improve your dental health through the proper diet.

Resources:

 

http://www.prevention.com/mind-body/side-effects-anxiety-and-stress-management-tips

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4215002/

http://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/how-worrying-affects-your-body?page=2

http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/easing-dental-fear-adults

http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/features/dont-fear-the-dentist?page=3

http://bebrainfit.com/anti-stress-coloring-books/

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