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Published: 25 January 2022

How to overcome dental anxiety

Author: Dr Chhaya Chauhan, BDS (Leave a comment)
How to overcome dental anxiety 1

In this post I'll be providing advice for anyone who is anxious about going to the dentist or has a dental phobia. 

As a dentist trained in dental phobia, I have a lot of experience working with nervous patients. I would like to help as many people as possible get help with their teeth.

Dental anxiety is where you feel very nervous and scared of going to the dentist. It is a real thing and it is a natural condition.

Lots of people can be phobic about going to the dentist so don't feel embarrassed or scared — it's an actual condition and your dentist will understand.

Use the resources below to start taking action and make positive steps with your oral health.

Action steps for anxious dental patients

Below is a series of actions you can take to help you book and attend a dental appointment.

I recommend printing a paper copy of the checklist as well.

To do now

  • Print off this list, or save it somewhere easy to access on your computer.
  • Watch our video to learn more about dental phobia (You might have already done so).
  • Find a local dentist.
    • Most dentists are trained to help nervous patients like yourself. If you have a dentist already, you can ask them.
    • There are dentists who specialise in dental anxiety. You may prefer to opt for these dentists.
    • You may wish to consider a private dentist over NHS. Private will cost more, but they have more time available to assist you.

To do within the next 24-48 hours

  • Use our questionnaire to help plan your first call or message to the dentist.
    • It is important to be as honest as possible here to get the best results.
  • Make your appointment with the dentist using the results of the questionnaire.
  • Consider watching our video that demonstrates a typical dental appointment.

Once your appointment is booked

  • Add it to your diary/calendar, along with a reminder beforehand so that you don't forget (Don’t add too many reminders though).
  • Plan your route to the dental practice.
    • Check available parking, bus routes, etc. 
    • If you have time we recommend trying it before the day of the appointment as then it is one less thing to be anxious about.
  • If you think of any worries or questions before your appointment write them down to take with you to your appointment.

The day before your appointment

  • Review the questionnaire you completed to make sure you are happy with the answers you gave.
    • If you make any adjustments that will impact the dentist, contact them to let them know.
    • You may want to rewatch our video to reassure yourself.

On the day

  • Eat and drink as you would normally.
  • Take any medications you normally would.
  • Keep yourself busy.
    • If possible, do things that make you feel happy and relaxed prior to the appointment.
  • Take the completed questionnaire with you to the dentist if this makes you feel more comfortable.
  • Arrive in good time. Aim for 10 minutes before to fill in any paperwork.
    • Don’t arrive too early though. The waiting may give you too much time to think about things.
  • Speak to reception (if applicable) to reconfirm your situation and any special requests you have made.
  • Try to remain calm during the appointment and make use of any of the coping strategies.
  • If at any point you feel uncomfortable, advise the dentist/dental staff. 

After your appointment

  • Praise and reward yourself for having visited the dentist.
  • Plan (potentially alongside the dentist) any necessary next steps. 

Act immediately if you have the following symptoms

Please note.  If you are experiencing any of the following situations you need to act fast and contact the dentist or emergency services by telephone

  • An accident or trauma has caused 1 or more teeth to be knocked out or lost.
  • An accident or trauma has caused 1 or more teeth to become extremely loose and likely to fall out very soon.
  • Significant bleeding that won’t stop.
  • Severe pain that isn’t helped by painkillers.
  • Wounds to the lips, tongue or cheeks.
  • Swelling that affects the eye, or that affects the throat so that you are struggling to swallow or breathe.
How to overcome dental anxiety 2
The author of this article is Dr. Chhaya Chauhan who has specialist training to help patients with a dental phobia.

Printable questions to help you book a dental appointment

I have put together a printable questionnaire that you can use to describe your dental anxiety.

Filling in the questionnaire will help you to understand what you need and help you to make a dental appointment.

It also includes a sample script that you can use when booking your dental appointment.

Learn about dental phobia and how to overcome it

The sections below mostly summarise the information I have included in the video above.

I have split the advice up into things it's important to know and remember about dental anxiety.

I have also included links to relevant content about taking care of your teeth.

Many people are scared of the dentist

There are many people that are scared of the dentist but need treatment.

The University of Adelaide estimates that 1 in 6 adults in Australia have high dental fear, as do 1 in 10 children.

One third of the US population avoids going to the dentist because they're scared.

Various things cause dental phobia and anxiety

There are lots of different causes of dental phobia and anxiety. To list a few of them:

  • You may have had traumatic past experiences
  • Dental infections, a toothache, things actually hurting you in your mouth can make you worry
  • Hearsay of what people have said could put you off
  • Bad experiences from when you were a child may bring back bad memories

Certain sights and smells can also trigger memories of previous bad experiences.

Dental anxiety may also be related to other things, like memories you may have of going with a special person who is no longer able to go with you.

You may also be worried about moving to a new dentist — perhaps you've been seeing the same person at a particular practice for a long time and you're very familiar with the way they work, so going to a new place may make you very anxious.

Whatever the reasons are for your anxiety, it is something you can discuss with your dentist and work on together.

The dental industry has vastly improved

In the past the dental industry has had an image of creating fear in people and was regarded as a very scary environment.

But in days gone by modern technology wasn't available, nor were good anaesthetics. 

Knowledge and techniques have vastly improved and in this day and age dentistry is very accessible.

There's lots of information about it, and lots of dentists are aware of dental anxieties and are very willing to give their time to help patients with problems.

Dentists are willing to talk to you about oral hygiene and give you advice.

Oral care products like toothpaste and toothbrushes are so much better in this day and age, and the medications available are also much better.

There are a range of common symptoms

The common symptoms of dental anxiety and phobia are things like:

  • A racing heartbeat,
  • Sweaty palms
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Being unwell
  • Feeling dizzy and having palpitations
  • Feeling hot

Someone may also experience certain fear symptoms, which can include:

  • Sleepless nights before the visit
  • Heart throbbing (palpitations)
  • Heart racing (tachycardia)
  • Dry mouth
  • Elevated blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Trembling and tremor
  • Feelings of suffocation
  • Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
  • Nausea 
  • Urge to urinate
  • Urge to gag or vomit
  • Fainting and hypotension 

You may experience a variety of these symptoms or your anxiety may manifest itself in other ways.

Whatever you are feeling, it's something that you can share with your dentist. There is a section for this in our questionnaire for booking an appointment with your dentist.

Leaving it can make things worse

Sometimes the fear of not actually seeking advice from your dentist ends up causing more of a problem and making your dental problem worse.

For example, if you've lost a filling and you're too scared to go to the dentist and you leave it for longer and longer, your filling may then develop into a more serious problem than if you were to seek advice a little bit sooner and have a simple feeling done.

It's easier to go and see the dentist sooner rather than later for a quick fix, instead of letting it develop into a bigger problem. 

You are not being judged

Many people have a fear of being judged and told off or shouted out by their dentists for not taking care of their mouth. 

But this is not how you should expect to be treated. Your dentist is a health professional who is there to try to help you keep your oral hygiene at its best.

It's a dentists job to educate you about your oral hygiene and help you get your teeth into a better condition.

Dentists don't want to pull your teeth out

Dentists don't actually want to take your teeth out or do root canals or do other horrible things to your teeth.

Ideally, they would like to help get rid of any dental disease and problems that you have in your mouth.

This prevents your teeth from hurting and means you're able to chew your food effectively, and ensures that you can go out and enjoy your life without worrying about your teeth. 

How to overcome your fear of the dentist

Sometimes people who are nervous and very phobic need treatment and really want to come to the dentist, but they feel that they're unable to because of that massive barrier of actually getting to the dentist.  

There are various ways to overcome that barrier, and hopefully the advice on this page will set you on the right path.  

Tell your practice how you feel

Using good communication is one of the most important things you can to overcome dental phobia or anxiety. 

Your dental practice will not know that you're anxious or phobic until you let them know. 

If you make them aware in advance of your visit, the whole team can work together to try to help you overcome your fears and help you get better treatment for your mouth. 

Before making an appointment you can phone the dental practice and explain to the receptionist how you feel.

Choose a dental practice that you feel comfortable with so that it's easier to go on the day.

Take someone with you

You could book an appointment and go along with a friend or family member.

Have somebody else drive you there so that you don't need to worry about the route to take. 

Don't overthink your problems

Lots of people overthink the problems that they think may be in their mouth and they may build the problem up to be more than it is. 

Sometimes if you actually go and see your dentist there may be a simple solution to your problem rather than the big treatment you are imagining. 

The best thing is to go and see your dentist and actually find out what the problem is so that you can find an easy solution. 

Don't do your own research before going

I advise that you avoid researching things online before your visit. Your own research may give you a worst case scenario that is not applicable to you, but creates more fear about your visit. 

Rather than researching different options it's best that you go along to your dentist and they can have a look what's inside your mouth.

They can then give you a tailored plan and tell you what is best for you.  

Create a good oral care routine at home

A good oral care routine at home will really help to reduce your fears about going to the dentist.

It will help to reduce any problems that might be in your mouth and make you feel better about your visit.

Good oral hygiene, good brushing, good flossing and a good diet will definitely keep your teeth a lot healthier.

This means that when you actually do get to your appointment it will be a lot more straightforward.

Below are links to our articles and on good oral care:  

And here's my video on how to take care of your teeth properly:

How to overcome dental anxiety 3

Take something calming with you

A good way to to stay calm on your way to or at the dentist is to take an aid with you.

This could be a meditation device or some music, or anything that makes you feel calm and comfortable. 

Make the day before restful

Try to make the day before your appointment a calming one.

It will help if you get a good night's sleep and have a good meal. 

Book a morning appointment

If possible book your appointment for the morning so you're not worrying about going to it all day.

You can get it over and done with nice and early so that you can enjoy the rest of the day and relax. 

How dentists treat nervous patients

As dentists that are specially trained in dental phobia, we treat different anxieties in different ways. 

Different treatments for different anxieties

How you are treated depends on what you are anxious about. For example, some people don't like the sounds of drills so we may recommend that they bring headphones in. 

Other people are anxious of waiting times because that gives them time to sit there and build up more worry. In that situation we can book them in for an earlier appointment so that they have to wait less and they're seen quicker.  

How your treatment is managed really depends on your personal situation, so that's why it's very important that you go and see your dentist so that they'll be able to make the best treatment plan for you.

Have a chat about your worries first 

Another way your dentist may help you to cope with your anxieties is to ask you to come in for an appointment first and then just letting you talk about your worries. You can explain any situations that make you particularly nervous. Together you can come up with solutions. For example, while you're having your treatment done you could raise your hand to stop whenever you want to. 

Take it 10 seconds at a time

If you're really anxious then using a count of 10 seconds can be useful. Then dentist can count to 10 whilst looking in your mouth. Then they can stop, check in with you and then start again for another 10 seconds. That way you know the dentist will only be looking in your mouth for 10 seconds at a time, and you can gradually build up from there. This lets you get up regularly for rinse outs and gives you a chance to cough or swallow if you need to. 

Start off with just a check up

Even if you do need treatment, your dentist may start off with something simpler for you like a checkup. This can help to build your confidence and explain the procedure to you and really give you control of what you want to do. There may even be a little buzzer or bell you can use to let the dentist know that you want to take a break. It can be a good idea to book a longer appointment time with more breaks so that you feel more comfortable during the procedure.

Break the procedure down into small appointments

Another way to deal with anxiety is to break the procedure down into smaller appointments rather than doing lots of treatment all in one go. Breaking it down means you've got several bouts of smaller appointments, which are positive experiences and therefore build your confidence over a period of time. 

The dentist will tell you which dental issues you have even if you don't necessarily want to know what they are. It's a dentist's job to look inside your mouth and tell you what is wrong with your teeth.  They can explain the different conditions to you and they can give you different options for fixing the problems.

Sedation dentistry is an option if you need it

It is possible to be sedated for dental treatment. For example if you have quite advanced dental treatment or you're very nervous you can be sedated either by inhalation sedation, IV selected sedation or in very severe cases general anaesthetic. 

When you have sedation done you are not fully asleep, you are only partially asleep. This means that you can still respond to questions. However, when you wake up you will not remember any of the procedure and you will not have any of the anxieties that you have, so it's a good option for people who are very anxious.  

For people who've got a very bad dental phobia and they're really unable to go and see the dentist there's lots of things available. You can phone your GP to ask for a referral for therapy to help you get over your fear.

You can even ring your dental practice and ask for a virtual consultation so you have a video call or a phone call to get started. This can include some questions to see what kind of problems you may have and you can use the video to show any problems inside your mouth.

It's a good idea to start to build a relationship with your dentist in that way and gradually build yourself up to become more confident to eventually attend a dental practice and have a checkup done. 

How we, as dentists, can help others

As dentists, we can try to help people not get dental anxieties by explaining any procedures fully, giving them lots of information about what actually happens in a dental practice, and by making the dental practice a comfortable environment.  

Giving them lots of choices about their treatment means they're never forced to do anything they don't want to. Giving them lots of time to think about it also means that whatever they decide is completely their choice within their own limits. 

Getting children used to the dentist

It's important to take your children to the dental practice when they're very young. Even if you have a baby and it's only you as an adult having a checkup, you can bring them along so that they get used to the sounds and the smells and the dental environment. 

You can start to take your child to the dentist as soon as they have a tooth forming. This can be as early as six months. Doing this means the dentist can have a look inside their mouth and also means the child can get used to the environment and sitting in the chair. 

The younger they start going to the dentist the more normal it will be for them and the more familiar they will be with a dental environment. This reduces the chance of any future dental anxieties forming. 

Author: Dr Chhaya Chauhan, BDS

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