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If your fear of the dentist is bad—so bad that you might avoid the dentist for years—and only go when you have a very great pain that is worse than your fear of the dentist, you might suffer from dental phobia. And if you do, there might be hope for you yet, in the form of a specific kind of therapy.

study recently published in the British Dental Journal suggests that severe fear of going to the dentist can be overcome using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT.

Psychology Today describes CBT as "a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts… CBT focuses on solutions, encouraging patients to challenge distorted cognitions and change destructive patterns of behavior." The study authors add that "it is a synthesis of behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy; it uses both behaviour modification techniques and cognitive restructuring procedures to change maladaptive beliefs and behaviours."

British Dental Journal

In other words, CBT can lead to behavior modification. In this case, the behavior of avoiding the dentist.

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The research was conducted on a group of 130 dental patients who attended a CBT clinic that was run by the King’s College London Dental Institute Health Psychology Service for about 17 months. The patients–99 women and 31 men, nearly 40 years old on average—were surveyed for their particular fears. King's College offers more details in a statement:

Three-quarters of those assessed scored 19 or higher on the Modified Dental Anxiety Scale (MDAS), indicating dental phobia. The remainder all scored high on one or more items of the MDAS, suggesting a specific fear of some aspect of dentistry. Fear of dental injections and the dental drill were the most common high scoring items on the MDAS. Nearly all patients (94%) reported a knock-on effect from problems with their teeth, mouth or gums on their daily living and quality of life.

After the patients attended the CBT treatment, 79% got dental work done without sedation, which is the most common way of dealing with dental phobia. Six percent were sedated without treatment.

In a statement, King's College explains that it only takes six to 10 sessions on average for CBT to yield results, and that those who participated in the trial only needed five sessions on average.

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Lead author Tim Newton added that unlike sedation, CBT could be a long-term solution for people with dental phobias. But, he added, that doesn't mean sedation should be thrown out altogether: "There will still be those who need sedation because they require urgent dental treatment or they are having particularly invasive treatments. Our service should be viewed as complementing sedation services rather than as an alternative."

Which might be a relief to the very fearful.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.