Desensitisation and Dental Phobia


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Many anxieties can stem from a fear of the unknown or from anticipating an event which you suspect will be unpleasant. The process of desensitisation is based on this fact, and is geared towards easing a dental phobia by removing this particular element of fear, anticipation, and anxiety.

What is desensitisation?

Desensitisation refers to a process by which, through gradual exposure to the cause of fear, you are made to get used to it and hence stop reacting to it in such a negative way. It may sound cruel at first, but the process is actually very gradual and designed to work to a pace that suits you. Desensitisation is based on a concept of ‘gradual approximation’, and begins long before treatment. The first stage is often just getting used to the environment to begin with. To achieve this your dentist will usually arrange a casual chat with you, which gets you into the treatment room without any potential for dental procedures. This is usually enough to get anyone with a dental phobia to come in and start getting used to the environment.

Who is responsible for desensitisation?

The onus for a lot of methods to resolve dental phobias falls on you more than anyone else. That being said however, when asked or approached both dentists and psychologists can help desensitise you to a point where you can attend your dental appointments on your own.

Dentists often use what is called a tell-show-do method of desensitisation. This is simply a sequence of first explaining how a procedure is conducted, then showing it, and finally, when you’re ready, doing it. Alternatively your dentist can rehearse different methods with you, giving you an awareness of what to expect and hence easing your anxiety. All these approaches are designed to both expose you to dental procedures, hence desensitising you, and to establish a relationship of trust and open communication between you and your dentist. Some dentists will also let you play around with equipment yourself, giving you an opportunity to experience the kit first hand and making the whole process seem less intimidating than it is.

Psychologists and therapists will use different methods of desensitisation because they don’t have a dental clinic to hand. This in fact allows them to be creative and adopt more abstract techniques if you want a few steps before going to the dentist’s office itself.

An important term when talking about desensitisation is the idea of systemic desensitisation. Both a dentist and psychologist will talk about exposing you to situations and/or objects that relate to your fear. After being taught important relaxation techniques like breathing and visualising, system desensitisation will gradually expose you to elements of your fear, starting off the with the distantly related and getting closer and closer to the next one. The most important element of this is taking it at your pace, only moving on when you feel comfortable with one step.

Examples of desensitisation

The kind of things you might be exposed to as your dentist or psychologist desensitises you include, for example, the numbing gel which looks quite harmless. Your dentist might rub some on your gums so you can experience the painless numbing sensation. The numbing gel is quite a good place to start as it is a dental tool and yet is completely harmless. It also has the added bonus of being a tool designed to relieve the pain of local anaesthesia, which is injected by means of a syringe, and this leads on to the next stage which is often an introduction to the anaesthetic and how it works. At this point not exposed to the needle as this can be quite an intimidating aspect of dentistry!

Systemic desensitisation will continue in this manner, and when you are comfortable with one step, you can ask to be moved on to the next and gradually build up a level of comfort with the environment, procedure, and dentist.


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