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.


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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.”


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.


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.

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