Overcoming Dental Fear and Avoidance

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Male patient consulting with dentist

If you fear going to the dentist, this is nothing to be embarrassed about. More than 50% of American adults are anxious about visiting the dentist and between 9-20% avoid going to the dentist altogether.1 Fear of needles, the sound of the drill, and the fear of experiencing pain are some of the reasons why people develop anxiety or a phobia of dental visits.  Source:  ADHA; Journal of Dental Hygiene

Fortunately, partnering with the team at your dental office along with taking other actions can make your dental visit more manageable, and the first step is identifying where you stand with your dental avoidance.

There are different levels of dental fear. Some people experience anxiousness about going to the dentist while other people have a phobia that is more severe.

Dental Anxiety

If you’re stressed out or anxious about visiting the dentist or are prone to postpone your dental appointments, you might have dental anxiety.

Some symptoms you might experience include:

  • an increased heart rate as your dental appointment nears
  • sweating more than usual during your dental visit

Although dental visits are nerve-wrecking for those with dental anxiety, most people still get through their appointments.

Dental Phobia

People who have dental phobia have an intense fear of visiting the dentist. If you find the mere thought of visiting the dentist terrifying and are overcome with panic as your appointment draws nearer, you probably have dental phobia.

You might experience the following:

  • trouble eating or sleeping before your visit
  • feeling emotional or crying as your visit nears
  • the sense that you are having trouble breathing

Dental phobia is less common than dental anxiety, and the reasons why people experience it vary.  Either way, your phobia of the dentist may cause you to skip routine checkups or only visit the dentist when you’re in pain.

Why Are You Afraid?

There are many reasons why you might fear visiting the dentist. Many times, the fear can arise due to past experiences or an existing mental health condition.

Reasons you may develop dental anxiety or dental phobia include:

  • a negative experience at the dentist in childhood
  • having generalized anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • seeing yourself as someone with a low pain tolerance
  • trust issues or the fear of losing control
  • past traumatic experiences, including abuse

Maybe you’ve been avoiding the dentist and are self-conscious that you haven’t been to the dentist in a while, which can intensify your dental anxiety or dental phobia.

Whether you think you experience dental anxiety or dental phobia, it’s important to ensure your dental fears do not serve as obstacles to you getting the oral health care you need.

A Checklist of Coping Techniques

Having a checklist of actions you can take to make your dental visit seem less fearful is key to making dental visits a part of your oral health routine. Here are some actions you can take:

Communicate your fears:  Let your dental team at the dental office know ahead of time that you have dental fear. This will help them make the right accommodations for you before and during your appointment.

Stay informed: Ask your dentist to explain step-by-step the procedures you’ll be doing during your visit. This way, you’ll feel less nervous and more in control. If you think you’ll be too nervous to remember what your dentist tells you, ask your dentist to write down what he tells you.

Take breaks: Don’t be afraid to speak up if you need to take a break during your cleaning or dental procedure. Consider working with your dentist to establish a signal you can use when you need to catch your breath.

Use distractions: Taking your mind off dental procedures can help alleviate your anxiety. Ask your dentist if they can play music. Or bring headphones so you can listen to your own music. If the sound of the drill makes you nervous, noise-cancelling headphones or ear buds are a good solution.

Schedule morning appointments: Consider scheduling your dental appointments earlier in the day so you won’t spend the whole day stressing about how your dental visit will go.

And, for those with more intense dental phobia, you might also want to take additional steps prior to your appointment:

Make pre-appointment visits: If possible, ask your dentist if you can stop by prior to your appointment to familiarize yourself with the office. Gradual exposure to your surroundings will help alleviate your fears on the day of your appointment. You can also ask for a walk-through or demonstration of the procedure you’ll be undergoing on the day of your dental appointment.

Practice relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, a form of deep breathing, can help to relax tension in the muscles. Try inhaling slowly and then exhaling whenever you have panicked thoughts about visiting the dentist. This will prepare you to use this technique on the day of your visit.

If your dental phobia is severe, consider talking to a mental health professional about cognitive behavior therapy and other options before seeking dental treatment.

HUSKY Health members can connect to a therapist through the CT Behavioral Health Partnership.

The Effects of Dental Avoidance

Avoiding the dentist can have a negative impact on your oral health. Skipping out on routine cleanings can lead to tooth decay and even tooth loss, which can affect your confidence. You might also have to undergo even more painful procedures as a result of your dental avoidance.

While overcoming dental fear is a gradual process that requires commitment, with the right tools and techniques, along with a supportive dental team, it can be done.

Created on By Sandra Rodriguez
Dental Fear and Avoidance graphic

Quiz - Dental Fear, Anxiety and Avoidance

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What are some reasons why people avoid going to the dentist?

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Which of the following are coping techniques you can use to make your dental visits more manageable?

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What may be a sign that you have dental phobia?

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The average score is 67%