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Dental anxiety: therapeutic and self-care solutions

Drug-Free Ways to Feel Relaxed at the Dentist

Regular teeth cleanings and exams are important. But let’s face it—most of us would rather be on a sunny beach than in the dental chair. It turns out that keeping that in mind can help you beat fear and anxiety during your visit.

About three-fourths of Americans feel anxious about visiting the dentist. And shots and other dental procedures sometimes cause pain. Scientists think that the two are related. Being nervous and expecting dental visits to hurt may make pain worse.

Medications can help manage pain or anxiety. But other methods are also available. Here are details about some of the most common alternatives.

Relaxation Techniques

When you feel dental stress, take slow, deep breaths letting your stomach rise and fall as you breathe in and out and imagine yourself somewhere else. If the beach isn’t your thing, perhaps you can think about a soothing waterfall? As you begin to relax, continue abdominal breathing, but breathe at a regular depth.

Programs that train patients how to relax their muscles have been shown in studies to help relieve dental anxiety. Here is one proven exercise: Sit comfortably. Start with your head and move down through your jaw, shoulders, and back. Slowly and gently move each joint from side to side. Rest for a few seconds in between and let your muscles relax and notice how your body feels.


You might think of hypnosis as belonging in a stage show. But really, it’s just a more focused form of relaxation training.

Specially trained psychologists can use hypnosis to help you with your anxiety. Studies suggest it also can change the way the brain handles pain. However, hypnosis may work better for some people than for others.

Your dentist may employ similar methods at your visit. For instance, he or she might guide you through soothing mental images, such as a favorite vacation or a happy childhood memory.


This ancient practice involves inserting needles through the skin at specific points. It has shown promise in easing pain after dental surgery.

Talk with your doctor before trying this method. Seek a skilled and licensed practitioner. Be sure he or she uses sterile needles.

Planning Ahead

Taking steps to prepare can make your visit easier and less painful. First, book a time when you won’t feel stressed or rushed. For many people, this means mornings or weekends. Avoid caffeine and sugary foods before you go. They can make you more jittery.

Talk with your dentist and the staff about your nervous feelings. Getting them into the open can help the team take steps to calm your fears. Agree on a hand signal you can use to tell the dentist you’re uncomfortable.

Finally, bring headphones and your favorite soothing tunes. Who better than Barry Manilow, for instance, to drown out the dental drill?



“Acupuncture for Pain.” National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health, August 2010. Accessed 2013.

“Anxiety and Pain During Dental Injections.” A.J. van Wijk and J. Hoogstraten. Journal of Dentistry. September 2009, vol. 37, no. 9, pp. 700-4. Abstract at Accessed 2013.

“Barry Manilow, Key to Overcoming Dental Anxiety?” Academy of General Dentistry, January 2012. Accessed 2013.

“Brief Relaxation Versus Music Distraction in the Treatment of Dental Anxiety.” C. Lahmann et al. Journal of the American Dental Association. March 2008, vol. 139, no. 3, pp. 317-24. 2013.

“Anxiety.” Mouth Healthy, American Dental Association. Accessed 2013.

“Hypnotizability, Absorption and Negative Cognitions as Predictors of Dental Anxiety.” J.D. D. DiClementi et al. Journal of the American Dental Association. September 2007, vol. 138, no. 9, pp. 1242-50. Accessed 2013.

“Pain: Hope Through Research.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, October 30, 2009. Accessed 2013.

“Why Am I Anxious in the Dental Office?” Academy of General Dentistry, January 2012. Accessed 2013.

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