Tips to Ease Dental Anxiety in People of All Ages

Clinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
Last Modified:

Table of Contents

  1. Dental Anxiety & Dental Phobia
  2. How to Ease Anxieties
  3. Strategies to Cope
  4. Why Regular Dental Care is Important
  5. Set Expectations with Your Dentist
  6. References

There are people of all ages who feel nervous when they drop into a dentist's chair. Anxieties and phobias about visits to the dentists are at least partly responsible for more than 40 million Americans not going to the dentist every year, even though such a visit can help stave off oral health issues that often carry consequences for overall good health.

Some adults can attribute some fear to having had bad dental experiences in the chair as children or with painful episodes of dealing with the removal of wisdom teeth, to name one common procedure. Others avoid the dentist because they don't like needles, hate the sound of nearby whirling drill or feel compromised by the sensory intimacy of work being done inside their mouth.

Dental phobia is when a person will do anything possible to avoid going to a dentist. People who have from it will only re-visit a dental office again to relieve extreme pain. These people understand that their fear is irrational, but their emotions are too strong to overcome.

  • Signs of dental phobia include:

  • Going to the dentist's office, but are unable to enter the building

  • Becoming physically ill or crying at just the thought of going to the dentist

  • Not sleeping the night before a dental appointment

  • Feeling nervous, a emotion that intensifies the closer you get to the dental office

Dental anxiety is being worried or experiencing uneasiness about an upcoming dental appointment.

How to Ease Dental Anxieties

Millions of people suffer from dental anxiety. Whether you've had a bad experience, are afraid of what they will discover, or perhaps you are scared there will be pain involved with the visit, there is help for you.

One thing to remember about dental visits is, generally the more you go, the less your oral issues become problematic – and the fewer issues you will experience. Overall, that means fewer and less-costly treatments. The longer you put off a visit to the dentist, the higher your risk is of developing serious problems that will require more treatment.

10 Strategies to Cope with Dental Anxiety

Here are 10 strategies you can use at your next appointment to ease your anxiety and make your time in the dentist charge less scary and more productive.

Sharing your feelings about any negative emotion, situation or reaction can make all the difference. You can mitigate feelings of being tense or anxious when you talk about what you’re feeling with someone else – or with a group of like-minded people.

If you have fears about sitting in a dentist's chair, the easiest way to deal with them is directly with the dentist or the hygienist. The dental team may have built-in, fear-lowering processes for you because someone else just like has already been through it.

State when you make your appointment. Ask the office manager or receptionist to share your concerns about coming in. This will alert the dental team right up front they will need to address your concerns. Remind them again when you go to your appointment. Share any worries you have or bad experiences you've had with other dentists.

Ask questions if you do not understand what is being done. Knowing gives people a lot more confidence and takes the mystery out of what is being done that you cannot see. You can even ask the dentist to accept a signal from you that means you want them to stop and give you a chance to speak. Signals can be raising your hand, leg, or even making a sound.

Speak up if you have pain during any process of your visit. Some patients feel embarrassed about admitting to pain or don't want to interrupt their dentist during a procedure. This is an invalid concern.

Medical experts consider it acceptable to interrupt if you are feeling uneasy about anything. Another concern to address is if you have a low tolerance for pain. This concern is something the dentist needs to know.

Taking your mind off what is happening during your exam will make it go smoother if you are feeling nervous about the appointment. There are things you can do or items to use to help distract you:

  • Headphones will help if the high-pitched sounds of a drill bothers you. Wear a pair of headphones to listen to your favorite music or audiobook.

  • Bring a stress ball or other small hand-held object to occupy your mind and hands during the exam.

  • Think about a happy place and create an image of yourself there doing your favorite activity.

Relaxation begins in your mind. Deep breathing exercises will help you relieve your tension.

  • Perform a counting of your breaths. Inhale slow, and exhale for the same number of counts. Do this whenever it works, such as before the appointment, in the waiting room, or during breaks in your dental work.

  • Relax each muscle in your body. Concentrate on relaxing your muscles one body part at a time. Focus on releasing tension starting in your forehead, then your cheeks, move down your neck, and continue down throughout your body.

Many dentists take steps to alleviate anxiety in their patients. When you make your appointment ask if your dentist knows how to help you through the exam. If they are not used to working with patients with anxiety, you can ask them if they can refer you to a dentist who can work with you. You can also ask friends or family if they know of a dentist who works well with anxieties.

You don't want to have to sit in the waiting room too long. People who sit for a long time in wait for any event tend to become more anxious. Arriving too early for your appointment could have you sitting and thinking too long before the exam even starts.

Many people appreciate the calming quality of oral sedatives or nitrous oxide. Talk to your dentist if there are options for you during an exam to help ease your tension and anxiety.

Before you head off to your dental exam, avoid foods with caffeine or high sugars as they tend to make people more jittery. These types of food and drinks could contribute to your nervousness and make you tenser during your exam. Look instead to more calming foods and drinks.

A lot of dentists understand there is a real fear for some people to come to them for exams. To help these patients and distract them from the dental treatment being done, they install TVs for patients to focus on or provide music for them to listen to while the exam is done. Ask your clinic if these are options you will have available, if not, you can bring your own music to help drown out sounds you may not want to hear.

If you have someone waiting for you, or even sitting in the room with you can help relieve a lot of anxiety.

If during your treatment, you begin to feel any discomfort, ask for a break. The dentist can pause their work while you calm yourself. This could be a good time to ask questions if you are worried about what treatment is being done, or get an update on how much longer you will be in the chair.

Why Regular Dental Care is Important

An annual or biannual cleaning and exam of your teeth is the foundation of preventive dental care. This is how you ensure optimal oral health. At an annual dental appointment, your dentist will check for gum disease, cavities, or other common problems that can occur inside your mouth. If there are any issues discovered, you will discuss proper treatment so these problems don't become severe.

Cleanings provided during an annual checkup can help prevent cavities. Cleanings are a form of preventive care, and during these, the plaque is effectively removed from your teeth. The advanced dental equipment used during the cleanings is much more effective than your use of an electric or manual toothbrush at home. Your dentist also has the expertise and the right tools to remove calcified plaque and tartar. It would be extremely difficult if not impossible for regular brushing to remove tartar from your teeth. When not removed, tartar can lead to gum disease, which would eventually cause you to lose a tooth.

Knowing the importance of regular dental care should help you decide it's time for your annual checkup. If you experience anxiety about this visit, or if you know someone who does experience dental anxieties, the above tips will help you stay calm at the dentist.

Set Expectations with Your Dentist

Your dentist wants you to have annual or biannual exams and cleanings. Talk to them about the expectations you have to make your dental experience more comfortable. Dentists are professionals and will want to work with you to make your dental care as stress-free as possible.

Even though you may not feel calm through every treatment, having your dentist aware of your anxiety will make your oral care go much easier, and get you that smile you deserve.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.