Overcoming Dental Anxiety

Dental anxiety, or dental fear, is estimated to affect approximately 36% of the population, with a further 12% suffering from extreme dental fear [1]. For many people, dental anxiety is disturbing but not disabling. Some are so terrorized at the thought of going to the dentist that they avoid the experience altogether–until the reality of an aching tooth or infection makes a visit unavoidable. 

Patients that have had bad experiences at the dentist, from a harsh doctor to embarrassment of their neglected teeth, may avoid the dentist making their existing problems even worse. 

Strategies to combat anxiety and have been reported to ease the dread of the dental office include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, and challenging irrational thoughts.

We’ve collected some data and resources from experts and patients that have anxiety to encourage you if all of this sounds familiar. 

Harvard Health Publishing reached out to its readers to see what coping mechanisms work for them: 

“I listen with a headset to laugh-aloud funny books or podcasts when I am in the waiting room and in the dental chair. I try not to get to the appointment too early, as sitting in the waiting room can increase my anxiety. And while waiting, I practice relaxation breathing.” — Suzanne 

“I bring my iPod and play nice soothing music, or a book on MP3.” — Heather 

Use these 4 methods to combat your anxiety:

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1. Speak up 

Anyone with anxiety knows sharing your feelings makes a world of difference. If you’re tense or anxious, do yourself a favor and get your concerns off your chest. Your dentist and dental team are better able to treat you if they know your needs. 

  • Tell your dentist about your anxiety. When you book your appointment, tell the receptionist you’re nervous about dental visits. Remind the dentist and dental staff about your anxiety when you arrive. Share any bad experiences you may have had in the past, and ask for suggestions on coping strategies. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Sometimes knowing what is going to happen alleviates any fears of the unknown. 
  • Agree on a signal. Let your dentist know by raising your hand if you need to take a break during an exam. 
  • If you experience pain even with a local anesthetic, tell your dentist. Some patients get embarrassed about their pain tolerance or don’t want to interrupt a dentist during a procedure. Talk with your dentist about pain before it starts so your dentist knows how to communicate with you and make it more comfortable. 

2. Distract yourself 

Taking your mind off the exam may seem impossible when you’re nervous, but there are some things that can help distract your thoughts:

  • Wear headphones. If the sound of the drill bothers you, bring headphones so you can listen to your favorite music or audiobook. Some dental offices even have televisions or show DVDs. 
  • Occupy your hands by squeezing a stress ball or playing with a small handheld object, like a fidget spinner. 
  • Imagine your happy place and visualize yourself at a relaxing beach or garden. 

3. Use mindfulness techniques 

Relaxation starts in the mind. Try deep breathing exercises to help relax tension in your muscles. 

  • Count your breaths. Inhale slowly and then exhale for the same number of counts. Do this five times while you’re waiting for your appointment, or during breaks while you’re sitting in the dental chair. 
  • Do a body scan. Concentrate on relaxing your muscles, one body part at a time. Start with your head and work your way down to your toes. For example, you can focus on releasing tension starting in your forehead, then your cheeks, your neck and down the rest of your body. 

4. There are several ways that your dentist can help reduce your anxiety with medications through different levels of sedation. 

Your dentist may prescribe anti-anxiety drugs, such as diazepam (Valium), that you can take one hour before a scheduled dental visit. Your dentist may also recommend conscious sedation. You will still have control over your bodily functions, and this medication is applied only during the procedure. Lastly, general anesthesia, which puts you into a deep sleep, may be recommended for more invasive surgeries of the jaw, or for those with special needs or severe anxiety that prevents routine care from being possible. Some of these options may not be advised depending on your medical health, so be sure to tell your dentist about your health conditions and medications. 

Ultimately, managing your dental anxiety will involve a combination of the above options. Talk with your dentist and explain exactly what makes you nervous about the visit. Your dentist will do a careful review of your medical history in order to make safe recommendations while considering your overall health. And lastly, visit your dentist regularly even if you are not in dental pain. This is the best way to prevent painful experiences and more complex and costly procedures!