Tips to Relieve Dental Anxiety

“I hate going to the dentist!”

This is something I hear as a dentist, and our culture tends to reinforce negative feelings about dentistry. A few years ago, there was a popular song on the radio with the opening line, “I was scared of dentists and the dark.”

Take comfort knowing that dentists are experts in their field, including how to help relieve any fears you may have regarding dental visits. I always remind people that dentists are real people. This may be surprising, but there are some things that give me anxiety too!

In some studies, 9-20% of people say that they avoid the dentist due to fear. This creates a cyclical pattern of dental anxiety. Patients avoid the dentist because of fear, which then opens up the possibility of increasingly serious dental problems. These problems require more invasive work in order to get the mouth back to a healthy state, and then the patient is left with anxious feelings about their visit. I encourage you to commit yourself to health and take steps to break this discouraging cycle.

To cope with dental anxiety, it’s important to understand the source of your fear. This is different for each person, and I encourage patients to spend some time trying to identify the root cause of their anxiety. Here are some common themes:

  • Fear of Pain – In one survey of patients who had not been to a dentist in the last year, six percent reported a fear of pain as their main reason. Many times adults hold on to dental visits of the past where “pain-free” dentistry wasn’t used.
  • Lack of Control – Similar to a fear of flying, some people find that being in the dental chair leaves them with no control. For some, not being able to see what is going on creates anxiety.
  • Embarrassment – People may feel ashamed, embarrassed or self-conscious regarding health conditions or the appearance of their mouth.
  • Negative Experiences – Anyone who has had pain or discomfort in the past is more likely to be nervous down the road. The brain remembers sights and sounds and associations can be strong for some patients.
  • Uncertainty of Procedure – There are many areas in dentistry and many different procedures we use to get your mouth back to a healthy state. The unknown can make people nervous.
  • Sensitive Teeth or Gag Reflex – Some patients have severe sensitivity or struggle with a gag reflex. Both of these conditions cause patients to be uncomfortable. 

Keep in mind, your dentist and dental team do not judge you. Our work in life is to help you achieve and maintain overall health. We actually enjoy doing this every day! For each reason listed above, there are number of solutions your dental team can offer to make your visits more enjoyable.

The first and most important step to lessening your fear is to speak up and commit to communicating with your dental team. Communicate your anxiety and concerns when you schedule your appointment. Be being upfront, you allow your dental team to plan and provide care that best meets your individual needs. If you are aware of anything that helps you feel comfortable, be sure to also communicate that while scheduling your appointment. When scheduling, find a time where you feel most at ease; avoid times where you tend to be rushed or feel under pressure.

Take time to discuss your anxiety with your dentist. By talking directly with the dentist that will be caring for you, you can be assured that both of you share the same expectations. Honest and open conversations allow your treating dentist to address any questions you have. One tip is to write down all of your concerns or questions prior to your appointment, and use this list as a guide for your conversation with your dentist.

Another way to help cope with any dental anxiety is to provide a distraction during your appointment. Some patients prefer to listen to music, an audiobook or a podcast while in a dental office.  Some patients request something to watch on TV. Others may find it helpful to have something to hold in their hand, such as a stress ball or a fidget spinner.

Relaxing exercises prior to the appointment are a great way to prepare your mind and emotions for your dental appointment. Use breathing exercises by counting your inhales and exhales. Calm your mind by completing a body scan, focusing on releasing tension from your head all the way down to your toes.

Think of what makes you calm and relaxed at home or in other environments. For some patients, smells play an important role, and some studies have shown that scents like lavender can be soothing.

Other relaxing methods are available and can be discussed with your dental provider. This includes laughing gas or use of medications. Your dentist may even recommend working with a therapist.

No matter what coping methods you try, remember that your dental team wants to help you relieve any barriers you have to receiving care. Work with your dental team to find what works best for you.  Celebrate after going to the dentist, and remember to schedule your next appointment so dental visits become a routine and – dare I say it – boring habit in your schedule.

Mark Scallon, DDS