What is dental anxiety & how can you manage it?

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If visiting the dentist makes you nervous and uncomfortable, you’re not alone. According to research, anywhere between 50 and 80% of American adults have some level of dental anxiety.

If visiting the dentist makes you nervous and uncomfortable, you’re not alone. According to research, nearly 36% of people in the U.S. have a fear of dental treatment.1

There’s no shame in experiencing dental anxiety, but it’s important to learn how to manage it. Skipping bi-annual appointments can negatively impact your dental health. During these visits, the dentist can identify cavities, gum disease, oral cancer, and other potential issues early — before they worsen and become painful and potentially costly to address.2 Your dentist can also offer advice to improve your dental hygiene at home.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to overcome dental anxiety and maintain a bright, clean smile.

What causes dental anxiety?

Dental anxiety can manifest itself in many ways, including difficulty sleeping, sweating, nervousness, nausea, and trouble breathing. There are also numerous causes, such as:3

  • Fear of pain, injections, or dental tools
  • Previous bad experience with a certain procedure or dental staff
  • Claustrophobia due to the dentist working inside your mouth
  • Uncertainty about the health of your mouth and whether the dentist will find cavities or another issue
  • Loss of control because you can’t see exactly what the dentist is doing
  • Embarrassment about the appearance of your teeth

These are all perfectly understandable and common concerns, and tackling them may seem difficult — especially if you’ve dealt with dental anxiety for a long time. But even if you can’t snap your fingers and get rid of it entirely, following a few tips can help appointments go smoothly and keep your teeth and gums healthy.

How to manage dental anxiety

Communicate with the dentist

Dentists help many people who have dental anxiety just like you. Once you find a dentist you feel comfortable with, be straightforward about your concerns so they can make you comfortable and offer advice for calming your mind. For example, if you’re claustrophobic, discuss using a hand signal if you’re feeling uncomfortable and need a brief break. If you’re worried about the tools the dentist will use, ask what each one does and what it will feel like. Asking questions about the specific procedure, such as why it’s necessary and what steps the dentist will follow, can also ease your mind. You may learn it isn’t as scary as you initially thought! You can ease your mind a bit by checking out our primer on what to expect during a dental cleaning.

Distract yourself

Sometimes, finding a way to take your mind off the procedure can help you get through it. Bringing a loved one along or playing a game on your phone in the waiting room may keep you calm. Some dental offices may help by playing music or turning on a TV. You can also bring headphones and listen to relaxing music or squeeze a stress ball. Some people get through an appointment by taking deep breaths and counting each one. Not only does this distract you from the appointment, but it also lowers your heart rate and blood pressure4 to help with relaxation.

Request sedation or numbing gel

If you’re still having trouble overcoming anxiety, see if the dentist offers intravenous sedation dentistry. Contrary to popular belief, it won’t make you fall asleep. Instead, it brings you to deep relaxation to help you get through the appointment. If you experience any pain, you can also request that the dentist apply a numbing gel. This will allow them to continue working without causing you discomfort.

While these tips may not make you suddenly love visiting the dentist, we hope they’ll help you feel a little more comfortable during your next appointment!


1 https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22594-dentophobia-fear-of-dentists#:~:text=How%20common%20are%20dentophobia%20and,in%20females%20than%20in%20males

2 https://yourdentalhealthresource.com/the-impact-of-skipping-your-bi-annual-teeth-cleanings/

3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4790493/

4 https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response 

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