Eliminating Dental Stress

Afraid of the dentist? Do you put off your dental appointments due to fear or anxiety? You are certainly not alone! True dental phobia is a problem amongst 2.5 million Australians according to some surveys.  The most recent survey conducted by Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health in 2008 made some interesting observations. It turns out that of those surveyed only 5% were considered to have true dental phobia. People were, in fact, more anxious about the cost of dental treatment, the possible pain and the thought of receiving needles! This blog will focus on understanding the true nature of stress, its impact on our bodies and ways to overcome it.

In understanding what stress really means, the “father of stress research”, Dr Hans Selye was instrumental in showing that when we are faced with chronic stress, we all go through three distinct levels of deterioration. In 1936 he developed the General Adaptation Model to explain the stress response. When faced with chronic stress, we enter the alarm state first, followed by the adaptation state and finally the exhaustion stage. Accelerated ageing and degenerative disease is the end state of chronic stress. For brevity, I have illustrated the impact that chronic stress has on our bodies in the picture below:

The General Adaptation Syndrome, Dr Hans Selye (1936)

A painful dental procedure (or the mere expectation of a stressful encounter) will trigger a stress alarm response in our patients. What you may not know is that there are types of chronic stress you may be experiencing right now but totally oblivious to it! The types of stress that we unconsciously live with include the effects of social disharmony, a poor diet leading to biological breakdown and untreated sleep apnea.  In another blog we will discuss how to identify these hidden stresses and ways to minimise their effect on our bodies.

In order to minimise stress in a dental setting, there are two broad methods available: external or internal. External methods include giving patients medication to reduce anxiety, sedation and even psychotherapy.  Internal methods aim to switch on the body’s own relaxation response. Examples of internal methods include hypnosis, natural supplements, and aromatherapy.

The Recovery Spa experience

Having a dislike to “drug up” my patients as the first option I started to research drug-free methods of stress relief. I was determined to shift the patient experience from fear and anxiety to relaxation and serenity. For any relaxation technique to be effective, it needed to work on the majority of patients, be safe and create a positive perception of the dental experience. This culminated in introducing the Recovery Spa concept to my patients. A blend of ambient lighting, aromatherapy and alpha music are used to bring the patient quickly into a calm serene state of mind. The music, in particular, has the impact of slowing the brainwaves down from an anxious (alarm) state to a pre-sleep alpha wave pattern. Occasionally natural supplements are also given. An example of one of these patients who has entered this calm and relaxed state of mind is shown on the left.

If dental stress is so common amongst our patients then why aren’t we doing more to manage the experience? One of the foremost authors who influenced my thinking years ago was Lou Carbone.  He spent a great deal of time researching organisations such as Disneyworld and leading Cruise liners to discover what made them masters in delivering an unforgettable customer experience. He later went on to outline an “intentional roadmap” to recreate the perfect customer experience every time.. Any healthcare professional can significantly improve their patient’s perception with a little “experience engineering”.

Beyond the dental experience, it is vital for you to find your own path to relaxation and renewal. On this note, the lyrics of Newton Faulkner’s Dream Catch Me inspire me to find it:

There’s a place I go when I’m alone
Do anything I want, be anyone I wanna be
But it is us I see and I cannot believe I’m falling
That’s where I’m going, where are you going?
Hold it close, won’t let this go.

Dream, catch me, yeah
Dream, catch me when I fall
Or else I won’t come back at all.

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