The difference between anxiety, fear, and phobia in dentistry

Dental fear and anxiety are often used interchangeably however there is a distinct difference between the two.

Anxiety is part of the normal response to everyday events. However, it is harmful if anxiety occurs excessively over a long time. Anxiety always precedes the actual encounter. The actual encounter may be real or it may be imagined. Anxiety occurs before the event is about to happen or may happen.

In a dental patient, a patient would be anxious the day before the actual appointment for a filling they may be anxious about the whole procedure which is real but also imagine that dentist will drill into the gum by mistake.

Dental fear is a reaction to a known or perceived danger. 

Using the example above, a patient now experiences fear the next day when they are actually sitting in the dental chair and the dentist picks up the handpiece to carry out the filling.

An anxious patient may have fear towards a scaling but not towards another treatment such as having an x-ray taken.

A dental phobia can be described as an intense form of fear which results in avoidance altogether. These patients will even try to take their own tooth out with rusty pliers from their garage rather than having to face a dentist. Once again using the above example, a patient makes an appointment but will not turn up all to the appointment even though they know that not having the filling done with lead to further pain.

In conclusion, anxiety is generalised, fear is specific and phobia is extreme avoidance fear.