July 10, 2023

How To Deal With Dental Anxiety

Communicating, establishing stop signals and even listening to music can help

dentist and patient talking

You know you’re supposed to visit your dentist regularly. But getting that appointment on the calendar can be tough — and not just because of your busy schedule.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Whether it’s the sterile smell, the buzzing and drilling sounds in the background, or the thought of someone being up close and personal in your mouth, going to the dentist can be unpleasant and stress-inducing. In fact, as many as 1 in 3 people report experiencing anxiety about dental appointments.

If that sounds like you, there are ways to minimize and manage your unease, says dentist Betty Haberkamp, DDS.

What is dental anxiety?

What does dental anxiety feel like? According to Dr. Haberkamp, dental anxiety is when you have an uneasiness or worry about an upcoming dental appointment.

“Dental anxiety is less severe than dental phobia,” she clarifies. “While a person with dental anxiety might be uncomfortable going to the dentist, they’re not cancelling appointments or getting physically sick over them.”

Advertisement

How to deal with dental anxiety

If you’re wondering whether you should talk with your dental provider about your fears and worries, the answer is definitely yes. If your provider knows what your fears are, they can better work with you to determine the best ways to make you less anxious and more comfortable.

Here are some strategies to help you cope:

  • Ask your dental provider to explain what’s happening at every stage of the appointment or procedure so you can mentally prepare for what’s to come.
  • Establish a stop signal, such as raising your hand, to let your provider know that you’d like them to stop what they’re doing immediately. Use it if you become uncomfortable, want to rinse your mouth or need to catch your breath.
  • “If sounds are the issue, we frequently tell people to use earbuds to listen to their favorite music,” Dr. Haberkamp suggests. “We’ll tap them on the shoulder if we need their attention.”
  • If your anxiety is severe, your dentist might recommend using nitrous oxide gas or IV sedation to help calm it.

Why do people fear the dentist?

There are a number of reasons people avoid the dentist, including:

  • A painful or unpleasant past experience. Dental fear often starts in childhood. It could stem from an unpleasant or painful past experience at the dentist, or from horror stories people hear from others or the media. Thanks to the many advances in dentistry made over the years, most of today’s dental procedures involve considerably less pain and often none at all.
  • Fear of needles. When it comes to dental procedures, many people are terrified of needles. Others fear that the anesthesia won’t work on them or that it won’t kick in before the procedure begins.
  • Fear of dental impressions. Biting down on runny goop that slowly hardens around your teeth used to be the only way to get night guards, sleep appliances, study models and other orthodontic procedures done. Not so anymore! “The runny materials of the past can now be replaced with digital technology,” Dr. Haberkamp says. “Many dentists now have 3D scanners which can completely eliminate the need for impression materials in most cases.”
  • Embarrassment. Whether they let a toothache linger for too long or feel embarrassed about their teeth, some people fear being judged or shamed by their dentist. Or they might feel afraid of getting bad news.
  • Loss of control. Many people are uncomfortable with the dentist or hygienist working so physically close to their face. Others feel self-conscious or out of control when they’re sitting in a dentist’s chair with mouth wide open, unable to see what’s going on.

What is dental phobia?

If you’re panic-stricken or terrified at the thought of a dental cleaning or procedure, that could be a sign of dental phobia. People with a dental phobia do everything possible to avoid going to the dentist — perhaps only going when extreme issues force them to. They know that this fear is irrational but are unable to do much to change it.

Advertisement

Other signs of dental phobia include:

  • Trouble sleeping the night before a dentist appointment.
  • A nervous feeling that gets worse in the dentist’s waiting room.
  • Getting to the dentist’s office but being unable to enter.
  • Crying or being physically ill at the very thought of visiting the dentist.

If you’re still experiencing dental anxiety, or even dental phobia, you might benefit from working with a behavioral health provider.

Related Articles

Child using smartphone and with social media and texts bubbles around him
January 15, 2024
How Social Media Can Negatively Affect Your Child

Too much screen time and unrealistic expectations and perceptions and can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression

Person huddled on floor with arms around knees with thought bubbles above head
January 3, 2024
Anxiety vs. Depression: Which Do I Have (or Is It Both)?

Although different conditons, they can occur together or cause one another

female sweating in gym with male lifting weights in background
December 25, 2023
Gymtimidation: How To Push Through Gym Anxiety

If the thought of the gym sends you spiraling, do some prep work beforehand and bring a friend along for support

Overhead view, female and male in kitchen preparing food, christmas tree and baking pans
December 18, 2023
How To Avoid Hometown Anxiety and Holiday Regression

Stay merry and bright by knowing your triggers and journaling throughout your visit

close up of green coffee beans
December 14, 2023
Should You Go Green? What To Know About Green Coffee Bean Extract

There’s no evidence to prove this supplement can help with weight loss, and it may come with risks

female wearing super hero cape standing in front a crowd of people
December 14, 2023
You’re the Star of the Show With Main Character Syndrome

Being the center of attention doesn’t mean you have to exile your guest stars

kid at bedroom desk stressing over a test while studying
December 13, 2023
How To Help Your Child Overcome Test Anxiety

Focus on a positive mindset, strong study habits and healthy living

person stressing, with clock and books
November 28, 2023
6 Ways To Feel Less Anxious in the Mornings

Breathwork, sleep meditation and avoiding screens can help fight back morning anxiety

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture

Ad