Dental anxiety could stem from childhood, research finds

10 June 2024

Research from Bupa Dental Care has found that nearly half the population (44 per cent) dread visiting the dentist, and 76 per cent of those put off the visit entirely. 

The study reveals that a leading cause of dental anxiety stems from childhood. Nearly two-thirds suffering from dental anxiety have a family member who is anxious about going to the dentist, and 36 per cent said this fear has contributed to their own dread. 

As a result, this fear is perpetuating a cycle of dental anxiety. One in five parents put off taking their children to the dentist, and 38 per cent of them say their children are nervous about dental appointments. 

Unfortunately, this childhood fear has been shown to develop into adult anxiety, with over half of adults reporting severe nervousness about dental appointments. This directly affects dental health, with respondents enduring toothaches, tooth decay, tooth sensitivity and loss of a tooth or teeth as a result. Over 13 per cent of people have resorted to self-treatment, and one in five of those have gone so far as extracting their own teeth.  

To improve dental anxiety, respondents said they would be reassured by staff with knowledge of supporting patients with dental anxiety (34 per cent), calming music (25 per cent) and a less clinical and more inviting environment (22 per cent). 

Additional insight from the latest ‘Bupa Wellbeing Index’ reveals that dental appointments are the number one health appointment the population puts off booking. 

Anni Seaborne, head of general dentistry at Bupa Dental Care, said, “It is well-known that of all health appointments, many people dread most a visit to the dentist. This is exacerbated by dental anxiety being passed on through generations. What’s concerning in this research is that dental anxiety in adults is impacting our own oral health as well as instilling unnecessary fear in children, which may dissuade them from getting regular and necessary care as they get older. 

“Oral health often acts as a window of health to the body, so it’s important that nervous patients prioritise dental appointments in the same way they do visits to the GP.

“We know that treating anxious patients can be more complex, as they may not always feel comfortable receiving routine care. Therefore, we need to reassure them that we’re in the profession because we care and want to help. We can also suggest new approaches to take towards their dental care in order to alleviate their fears and make the process easier.”

Nik and Eva Speakman, life-change therapists working with Bupa Dental Care, added, “Fear of the dentist, whether based on a real experience or an imagined one, is really damaging.  

“We all experience fear from time to time, but when it causes such distress that it interferes with someone’s life, it can affect us in potentially unhealthy ways.

“That’s why it’s so important that dental professionals provide patients with different techniques to help overcome their fear, for example, encouraging patients to be open about their worries so they can find ways to support them get the treatment they need and avoid future issues. We’ve provided guidance for patients and the practice teams on how to overcome or support those with dental anxiety.” 

Bupa Dental Care has also launched a video series of clinical advice in partnership with the mental health platform Just Ask a Question (JAAQ). The videos are designed to help people access expert information in a clear, non-jargon way to address all the common worries associated with visiting the dentist.