More than a third of U.S. residents fear dental treatments, and around 12% have extreme fear or dentophobia. This is to say that fear of the dentist is pervasive among the population, and it’s no wonder those people avoid seeing the dentist.
However, not visiting the dentist’s office can adversely affect our dental and overall health more than we think. In this article, I’ll try to share some insights and tips on how not to be scared of the dentist.
- Why Are People Afraid of Dentists?
- Treatment for Dentophobia
- Tips for Overcoming Fear of the Dentist
- How to Prevent Children From Fearing the Dentist
- Overcoming Fear of the Dentist
Why Are People Afraid of Dentists?
Most people fear the dentist because they had a negative experience in the past. I hear this all of the time from the parents at my pediatric dental practice. Maybe they had teeth pulled out as a child and remembered it as a traumatic experience. Or perhaps they experienced pain, a lack of empathy, or general discomfort at the dental office, which created an aversion.
Some people also feel discomfort when they hear the high-pitched noise dental tools emit. The mere thought of the buzz of the cleaning tools in the dentist’s office is enough for some patients to stay at home. It’s funny, but I too was once scared of the sound of the dental drill. After many years working in the field, thankfully, I hardly notice the sound anymore.
People may also fear the dentist if they are concerned about their oral health. Patients with bad teeth or bleeding gums are often afraid the procedure will be painful and prefer to wait for the pain to pass.
Below is a list of procedures or things a person can be afraid of that triggers their dentophobia:
- The dentist
- Feeling pain
- Smells and noise
Treatment for Dentophobia
A mild fear is best remedied by actually visiting the dentist. For more complex work, it’s okay to ask for laughing gas, or even light sedation to feel more comfortable during the procedure. Be sure that the dentist explains the risks involved, and whether you are a good candidate for these recommendations.
I usually start out by turning the treatment room light off, and put on some meditation music, which really seems to calm down even a very anxious child. The parents love it as well!
People with extreme fear of the dentist may require a combination of medications, therapy, and a very patient dentist, given that the fear may be linked to an anxiety disorder.
Exposure therapy is a standard treatment that involves visiting the dentist gradually in order to desensitize the patient. For example, patients start by only seeing the dentist without having an exam. Then, they can begin with partial exams and slowly build their way to full appointments. With children, the dentist might slowly introduce them to the tools we use in an age-appropriate and light-hearted way.
Medication can help to control symptoms as the person is undergoing exposure therapy.
Unless you have an extreme fear of going to the dentist, there are simple tips and tricks you can try to work through your feelings. I’ll share them in the section below.
Tips for Overcoming Fear of the Dentist
Identify What You’re Afraid of
The starting point is to identify what makes you afraid of the dentist. The fear can disappear when you come to the root of it. You may realize that your anxiety is unrealistic and that there’s no imminent danger in visiting the dentist’s office. Quite the opposite. A dentist is trained to help alleviate any pain or discomfort you feel, and they work to help you feel better, not scare you.
So identify the feeling, and let that feeling wash over your body. Once you’ve done so, you can now let it go. Don’t hide from it, or the feeling will get trapped in your body, and rear its ugly head every time you head into a dental office.
Find a Dentist You Like
If you feel uncomfortable seeing your dentist, it may be worth finding another one. Check for online groups or forums for dentist recommendations so you know you’re choosing someone people love and whom you can feel relaxed around.
After all, a dentist needs to understand that you’re having these feelings, and they should be able to walk you through the process and help you overcome that fear.
You may run into a dentist who doesn’t have the patience to treat people who feel discomfort. While you go over online reviews or look for recommendations, ask for dentists who are delicate and comforting toward clients who feel afraid.
Try Relaxation Techniques
Some people can start feeling anxious when they book a dentist appointment. If you’re one of those people, start with relaxation techniques, meditation, and other activities to help you get in the right mindset. Deep controlled breathing and stretches are also helpful in easing stress.
In extreme cases, you can ask your dentist about the sedation techniques they have that could help you relax once you’re in the office.
Visit With a Friend
It’s always a good idea to visit your dentist with a friend or family member. Bringing a person with you who you trust will help you relax. Plus, you’ll be able to chit-chat about random things to keep your mind from stressing about the appointment too much.
Support is important, and if you can bring someone supportive during this uncomfortable time, you’re guaranteed to feel better about your visit. Plus, you can go on a small shopping spree after the appointment to reward yourself and your friend for going through this experience together.
Get There Early
Rushing to work, school or appointments always triggers more stress. It gets us worked up and feeling anxious. The same goes when you rush to a dentist appointment. Plan your commute to give yourself plenty of time and get there 10 minutes early so you have enough time to get comfortable but not too much time to start thinking about the details of the procedure.
You can use the few spare minutes for sitting in the lobby, reading magazines, asking staff questions, or doing deep, controlled breathing exercises.
Talk to Your Dentist About the Fear
Dental anxiety is real, and dentists are aware of it. Likely the dentist has already dealt with hundreds of patients who were afraid. They already have experience in these situations and know how to proceed with these patients.
That’s why you should tell your dentist about your fear. Ideally, let them know you’re nervous the moment you sit in the chair. That way, the dentist can apply techniques to have you relaxed before starting the procedure. For children, pediatric dentists are specially trained to work with anxious children. We understand the various developmental stages children pass through, and take that into consideration when working with your child.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about anything that comes to your mind while you sit in the chair. Of course, ask about things that are dentist-related. For example, they may use a specific instrument more than the other. Ask what it does and how it helps treat your condition. When you understand how these things work and are helpful, you’ll be less afraid of them.
Most modern-day dentist offices are equipped with TVs or other types of entertainment. At my office, we have a television on the ceiling, perfect for when they are lying down for treatment. You can also put on your headphones or earbuds and play your favorite music or podcast. The dentist sure won’t mind, especially if you tell them you’re nervous.
Any distraction you can use will help you not think of the procedure and help you relax.
Take a Break
If you’re in for a lengthy procedure, don’t be afraid to ask for breaks whenever you’ve had too much. Even if the process isn’t painful but takes a long time, it’s okay to pause to catch a breath and relax. I often count to five or ten with my young patients, giving them a break in between, and this allows them to tolerate complicated procedures.
Much like in other situations where we fear the unknown, the outcome is usually not as scary or painful as it seems. The same goes for fear of the dentist. You’re likely to experience way more discomfort before going to the office than you actually will feel when you’re in that chair.
Even procedures most people dread, like a root canal or wisdom tooth extraction, seem way scarier in our heads than in reality.
Consider a Psychologist
Fears that don’t go away with the techniques above can best be treated with the help of a psychologist. Although rare, dentophobia is real and requires special attention and care. Suppose your levels of discomfort are so high that you feel sudden heart palpitations, sweating, or trembling the moment you enter a dentist’s office or have a panic attack. In that case, it may be best to consult a professional.
How to Prevent Children From Fearing the Dentist
Most dentist-associated fear starts at an early age. It’s crucial for your children that the first experience with going to the dentist is fun and pleasant. Below are some tips to help your child not be scared.
Take your child to a dental checkup within 6 months the first tooth emerges into the mouth. The first visit is primarily informational and can give you helpful information on how to use pacifiers, better understand thumb-sucking, and more. It’s also a chance for the child to develop a relationship with their dentist. Your dentist will discuss ways to prevent cavities from forming in the first place. Think of it as a well visit to the dentist.
Choose a Fun Pediatric Dentist
Do a short online search or look for recommendations for pediatric dentists with a good reputation, and who are board certified. When the doctor knows how to entertain children, little patients will trust them to work in their mouths and won’t feel scared.
Talk About Oral Health
Discuss why oral health with your child is essential and explain how tooth doctors can help them have a beautiful smile and healthy teeth.
Before going to the dentist, talk about the procedure your child can expect, but refrain from using words like “pain” or “shot.” The dentist knows age-appropriate words that will put your child at ease, while being truthful about what needs to be done.
Be a Role Model
Ultimately, the best way for the child to develop a healthy relationship with a dentist is to learn from a role model. Try not to show your fear (if you have it) of the dentist when you’re visiting with your child. It’s common for parents to pass on dental anxiety to their children, which you don’t want to do.
The best fun way to get a child used to a dentist is to play one. You can play a game of pretend where you could be the dentist, and they’re the patient. Then change roles to make the actual experience more fun and relaxing.
Try to improvise to give as much detail as possible, including them sitting in a chair, flossing, brushing or counting teeth. You can also include their favorite stuffed animal as a patient and have the child examine it.
Watch Dentist Videos
Look for kid-friendly dentist videos on YouTube or read books about the visit as another way to get your child ready for a trip to the dentist’s office.
Overcoming Fear of the Dentist
Fear of the dentist is widespread in the U.S., both in children and adults. While most people experience a mild discomfort and only feel scared until they start the appointment, others can’t bring themselves to see the dentist under any circumstances.
Whatever category you or your child fall into, try the techniques from this article to help you relax and make your next trip to the dentist more pleasant. And if you feel irrational fear that physically prevents you from making an appointment, consider talking to a psychologist first.