What is dental anxiety?

Don’t let anxiety keep you from a healthy smile

Going to a dentist or being in a dental office can cause a person to feel great anxiety. Dental anxiety is common among both adults and children, especially children being influenced by their parents' fears and attitudes toward dental treatment. It’s natural to feel anxious about potentially uncomfortable situations, but most dental anxiety and fear can be managed by talking with your dental team and adopting some simple strategies. 

Don’t let your fear of going to the dentist or being in a dental office become so overwhelming that it prevents you from making needed dental appointments and causes your oral health to suffer.  Here is some guidance for understanding and managing dental anxiety.

What causes dental anxiety?

Dental anxiety can be caused by a number of factors including:

  • A bad experience at the dentist or other health care setting.
  • Needles in and near your mouth.
  • Dental procedures — the sound of the drill or smells in the office.
  • Fear of loss of control or of pain.
  • Cost.
  • Gagging or choking.
  • Concern or shame about poor oral health or hygiene.
  • Embarrassment regarding your teeth.
  • Concern about COVID-19 or other diseases.
  • Generalized anxiety or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Past trauma to the head or neck.
  • Trust issues.

Dental anxiety signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of dental anxiety can range from mild to extreme and are not always easy to identify. However, if you have any of the following issues before or during a dental appointment, then you are likely experiencing dental anxiety:

  • Racing heartbeat.
  • Sweating.
  • Signs of stress, including panicking or crying.
  • Trouble sleeping the night before a dental appointment.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Changes in mood or temper.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Excessive worrying.
  • Feeling weak or tired.
  • Having the urge to avoid whatever is causing you to feel anxious.

Three ways to manage dental anxiety

The good news is there are many ways to ease the anxiety associated with going to the dentist. Here are some strategies to try out.

  1. Relaxation techniques: There are several relaxation techniques you can practice while visiting the dentist that can help ease your anxiety. Try deep breathing exercises like counting your breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly, or practice body scans where you concentrate on relaxing your muscles one body part at a time from head to toe. Put your imagination to use to feel more relaxed in the technique of guided imagery. You may even want to give hypnosis or acupuncture a try. Studies have shown that hypnosis and acupuncture can change the way your brain handles pain with acupuncture in particular showing promise in easing pain after dental surgery.1
  2. Distract yourself: Another way to help yourself feel less anxious is to find ways to distract yourself. This can include wearing headphones, squeezing a stress ball, or playing with another small handheld object during procedures that make you anxious. To take your mind elsewhere, you can also try thinking about your “happy place” like the beach or your favorite vacation spot. Some dental offices will even offer to put on the television since this can be a good distraction.
  3. Talk to your dentist. They’re there to help!: Simply being able to speak up about your anxiety can greatly reduce it. It’s important to share your fears and concerns with your dentist or dental hygienist, as they are certainly familiar with this form of anxiety and may be able to adapt their treatments to your needs. Many dentists have their own strategies for easing their patients’ fears and may offer you pillows, blankets, a warm neck wrap, and more to help you relax. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions about any procedure that is causing you to worry. The dental team wants to help you be comfortable and relaxed.

Final thoughts

Learning how to manage your dental anxiety is important to maintaining good oral health. Avoiding or refusing to seek dental care or to follow recommended treatment plans can result in a greater need for treatment, higher costs, more complicated procedures, and even loss of teeth. If anxiety is becoming an ongoing issue or is preventing you from regularly going to the dentist, then we recommend trying out some of the strategies above or speaking to your dentist about your concerns.

Additional resources

Looking for more information? Wanting to learn more about visiting the dentist?

Sources 
1 Moss D and Wilmarth E. Hypnosis, anesthesia, pain management, and preparation for medical procedures.  Ann Palliat Med. 2019 Sep;8(4):498-503. Ramírez-Carrasco A, Butrón-Téllez Girón C, et.al. Effectiveness of Hypnosis in Combination with Conventional Techniques of Behavior Management in Anxiety/Pain Reduction during Dental Anesthetic Infiltration. Pain Res Manag v. 2017;2017:1 Published online 2017 Apr 11 Ernst E, Pittler MH. The effectiveness of acupuncture in treating acute dental pain: A systematic review. Br Dent J. 1998;184(9):443–447 Lao L, Bergman S, Hamilton GR, Langenberg P, Berman B. Evaluation of acupuncture for pain control after oral surgery: A placebo-controlled trial. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1999;125(5):567–572 Naik PN, Kiran RA, Yalamanchal S, Kumar VA, Goli S, Vashist N. Acupuncture: An Alternative Therapy in Dentistry and Its Possible Applications. Med Acupunct. 2014 Dec 1;26(6):308-314

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