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How to Overcome Dental Anxiety

How to join the 85 percent of patients who don't fear the chair.

Maria Victoria Heredia Reyes/Unsplash Photos for Everyone
Source: Maria Victoria Heredia Reyes/Unsplash Photos for Everyone

By Kristen Bottger* with Leon Seltzer

What are your emotions when you think about scheduling a dental appointment? How do you feel when you walk into the reception room, with its aseptic smell and the din of the drill. Or when latex-clad hands invade your mouth?

Either you’re shuddering right now, or you’re running your tongue across your teeth, wondering whether you’ve arranged for your next cleaning. If you’re like most of us, visualizing yourself in the dentist’s chair can make you a tad uneasy, especially if in the past you’ve experienced a root canal or had a tooth pulled. You might even have concluded that we all loathe dragging ourselves to the dentist. And while it’s true that dental-related anxiety affects an estimated 15 percent of patients, a majority are able to get through this necessary health-care regimen unfazed.

Every dental professional wants their patients to feel calm and relaxed. And frankly, the simple reason for their concern is that your comfort makes their job a whole lot easier. Does that mean that if you’re not nervous, you’ll receive better care than if you are? Hopefully not. But consider that dentistry is like working in the world’s tiniest garage. When a patient is anxious, another level of difficulty is added, whereas the calmer you can be—despite whatever discomfort you may be experiencing—the more you’ll optimize the outcome of your dentist’s efforts.

As an analogy, have you ever tried to remove a splinter from the finger of a crying child, who's pulling his hand away in panic? For the same reason that almost reflexively a child resists a splinter removal (turning the ordeal into an exasperating tug of war), some patients simply can’t make it through a dental appointment without their anxiety taking over. It’s no surprise that fear of pain is the number one reason people get nervous before and during dental visits—even to the point of avoiding them altogether. If you have difficulty tolerating trips to the dentist, can you find a way to relax or emotionally desensitize yourself?

Here are some common worries—and strategies to subdue them:

  • “It’s going to hurt” — If you’re nervous about pain, let your dentist know; she can administer anesthesia comfortably so you don’t have to suffer. Afraid of needles? Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) works well to help you relax first. If nitrous oxide isn’t enough to dull your senses, sedation dentistry is common, and all you need is a designated driver to shuttle you to and from your appointment. For patients who can’t get past an unrelenting fear of the dentist, this is usually the best option.
  • Bad experience in the past — This seems to be the second most common complaint of apprehensive patients. Sometimes the overall experience of the appointment leaves you feeling unsettled — or worse, repulsed. Perhaps the office over-billed you, the hygienist wasn’t thorough, the assistant was annoying, or the dentist was insensitive. It happens, and it’s unfortunate. But it shouldn’t prejudice you against future visits either (whether with the same dentist or a new one). It’s almost always helpful to tell dental staff about your past experience, so they can understand exactly what offended you. It may require some patience, but you should be able to find a team that will be a good fit for you. And that can make all the difference.
  • Feelings of helplessness or loss of control — Not being able to talk or being confined to a chair with a “noose” around your neck (not to mention being drill-shy) can evoke feelings similar to claustrophobia. If this is you, let the assistant know at the beginning of the appointment how you’re feeling. During the appointment, raise a hand to take a break (and they can stretch their backs at the same time).
  • Embarrassment about your oral health — You may have gone years without a cleaning. Maybe you put off treatment, and you’re embarrassed or ashamed by the compromised state of your mouth, or what the dentist might say to you. But consider: dental professionals have seen it all. It won't phase them, so it shouldn't phase you either.
  • Anxiety About Cost — Dental work can be expensive, especially if your insurance doesn’t cover it. Still, regular appointments with your hygienist help reduce the need for more costly treatments later. When a filling or crown is necessary, however, talk to the office manager about payment options. Most offices will work with you to create a comfortable financial arrangement. Plus, check your area for free or low-cost clinics. If you’re near a dental school, students are always looking for patients. And they work under close supervision, so no need to worry. (Sometimes they even pay you to be their patient.)

If you experience any of these worries (or others not mentioned here), they can all be overcome. First, give your nerves an assessment. Do you have an intense, irrational fear—or phobia—of the dentist? It’s possible that this heightened level of fright might be alleviated only through working with a mental health professional. If you’re wary about taking that next step, try some visualization techniques at home. A helpful guide is Code to Joy by George Pratt and Peter Lambrou, in which the reader is prompted to identify and examine deeply held beliefs. Or you might explore David Burns’ ways to overcome anxiety using cognitive-behavioral therapy in his book When Panic Attacks: The New Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life.

Lower on the fear spectrum (but still very real for some) are the anxieties already discussed. Communicate your feelings to your practitioner. And try this trick: feel gratitude for your teeth and for your access to good care. Research shows that people who practice gratitude are more optimistic, healthier, get better sleep, and, in turn, experience less anxiety.

*A licensed healthcare professional and science enthusiast, Kristen Bottger writes STEM-based stories for children ages 6-10. In "Gravity Gone!" two curious fourth graders discover a hidden laboratory that turns the gravity off at their school. It's the first in a series where each story involves the students performing a science experiment with unexpected, surprising results. The recently published second book about adventures (near calamities) in this same secret school laboratory is entitled "Frozen Faraday," and here's its link.


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