Regular dental visits are an important part of maintaining your oral health. But what if just the thought of sitting in the exam chair makes you uncomfortable?
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Dental anxiety is common. Up to 80 percent of U.S. adults have experienced some level of uneasiness about upcoming dental appointments, per a February 2017 Journal of Dental Hygiene study. Sharp tools and loud noises in close proximity to your mouth can, understandably, be a little nerve-wracking.
"Seeing these objects can create fear that we're going to experience pain that we won't be able to stop," says Lana Lipe, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker and owner of Honu Therapy Services in Honolulu.
These feelings can be magnified if you've had a bad experience at the dentist in the past, or if you're self-conscious about your teeth.
"I think people are anxious about being judged. The mouth can show many things, and understandably people may be embarrassed of neglect or decay," says Joyce Khang, DDS, a dentist in Costa Mesa, California.
Addressing your dental anxiety head-on can make dentist appointments more manageable — and keep your mouth healthy. Avoiding cleanings or waiting too long to address tooth or gum problems can negatively affect oral health, Dr. Khang notes. And when you eventually do go to the dentist, you'll likely have to undergo procedures that are longer and more uncomfortable, not to mention more expensive.
These strategies for calming dental anxiety can help.
Dental anxiety isn't the same as dentophobia, which is an extreme fear of the dentist that can keep people from getting dental treatment even when they're in pain, per the Cleveland Clinic. Dentophobia affects only about 3 percent of adults and should be treated with the help of a mental health professional.
1. Find a Dentist You Like
Managing dental anxiety starts with finding a dental practice and sticking with it. Establishing a dental "home" offers the chance for you and your dentist to get to know each other, which can make it easier for the dentist to address some of your concerns.
"Dentists can accommodate anxiety to some degree. I always keep notes of how a patient handled a procedure, from the anesthesia to how long they can lay in the chair without becoming fidgety to what TV shows they like to watch," says Dr. Khang. "This becomes a growing list for me to keep the patient more and more comfortable in future encounters."
To find the right dentist for you, the American Dental Association recommends doing the following:
- Ask trusted friends or family members who live in your area for their suggestions. If they love their dentist, you may want to check out the same office.
- Do an online search for providers in your area, and pay attention to patient reviews. Certain reviewers may mention having dental anxiety and how that particular provider dealt with it.
- Use social media. Ask your local Facebook groups for recommendations and search providers' social media pages for patient reviews.
- Interview the dentist and their team. Ask about their treatment approach and bring along any other questions you need answered in order to feel safe and comfortable in their care.
If you don’t have dental insurance or worry about affording dental services, your local health department or nearby dental schools can help you find care. Try these helpful resources from the ADA.
2. Talk to Your Dentist About Your Fears
Start by bringing up your concerns when you book your appointment, and don't be afraid to ask questions about how a procedure will go, recommends the ADA. Knowing ahead of time what to expect and that the staff understands your concerns can ease some of your anxiety before you even get to your appointment.
You can also talk with your dentist about a signal you can use if you need a break during an exam or procedure. It can be as simple as raising your hand, the ADA says.
3. Try Distracting Yourself
Bring along something that can take your mind off of what's going on in your mouth and help drown out some of the noise of the dental tools.
"Bring your headphones so you can listen to your favorite music, podcast, show or audiobook," Lipe recommends.
Soothing tunes in particular have been shown to have a beneficial effect on dental anxiety for both adult and pediatric patients, per March 2016 findings in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry. You can even try listening to a guided meditation app.
If that's not enough, bring something to keep your hands busy too. Try a fidget spinner or stress ball, the ADA suggests.
4. Focus on Your Breathing
Deep breathing is a proven anxiety buster, and it can be just as effective in the dentist chair, Lipe says.
Breath-counting is a simple strategy that works even when your mouth is being worked on: When you start to get tense, inhale to the count of four and exhale for the same length of time. Repeating for five cycles can be enough to slow your heart rate and help you feel calmer.
5. Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Like deep breathing, muscle relaxation activities can slow your heart rate and help you feel less anxious, per Harvard Health Publishing. Best of all, you can do them even while lying in the dental chair.
Start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and work all the way up your body to your head and neck. Tense your muscles for five seconds and relax them for 30 seconds before moving on to the next part of your body, the Mayo Clinic recommends.
6. Ask About Medication
Anti-anxiety medications like Xanax or Diazepam could potentially be useful for easing severe cases of dental anxiety.
But if you feel like you need anti-anxiety supplements or meds to make it through a dental visit or you're avoiding going to the dentist completely, consult a therapist.
"It might be a sign that there is a bigger issue happening," Lipe says. "Talk with both your doctor and dentist about whether medication could be an option to help manage your anxiety symptoms."
Helping Kids Manage a Fear of the Dentist
It's not uncommon for children or adolescents to worry about dental visits, especially if it's their first time or if they've had a bad experience in the past.
The above tips can help kids who have dental anxiety, but keep the following advice in mind, too:
1. See a Dentist Who Specializes in Working With Kids
Seeking out a provider who specifically works with kids can be helpful, Lipe says. The dentist will have more experience putting younger patients at ease and will also likely have a kid-friendly office set-up (think: TVs with kid shows, fun prizes or stickers and toothpaste in fun flavors).
2. Prep Your Child Before the Appointment
"You should talk with your child about their concerns beforehand," Lipe says.
Tell them that seeing the dentist is a way to help keep their bodies healthy, and just as important, that you'll be there to support them the whole time.
3. Take Along a Comfort Item
"It can also be helpful to allow your child to bring their favorite stuffed animal, toy or blanket that they can keep with them throughout the appointment," Lipe says.
- American Dental Association: "Dental Anxiety: 3 Ways to Stop Fearing the Dentist"
- Journal of Dental Hygiene: "The Prevalence of Dental Anxiety in Dental Practice Settings"
- Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry: "Strategies to manage patients with dental anxiety and dental phobia: literature review"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Drills, needles, and pain, oh my! Coping with dental anxiety"
- Mayo Clinic: "Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Dentophobia"