Does the mere thought of going to the dentist cause your heart to skip a beat? Does the smell of antiseptic wafting from the dental chair make you want to turn around and go home? Do you cringe when you remember the last time a dentist used a drill on your teeth? And was that too long ago you can’t actually remember?
You’re not alone. Feeling anxious when you have to go to the dentist is actually more common than you think. Most people experience some degree of dental anxiety. When they have to get a procedure they’ve never had, they feel it even more.
All around the world, dentists have to grapple with dental anxiety. It’s a global public health problem. In Germany, for example, one study shows that 10% to 14% of adults experience dental anxiety. In Sweden, around 9% of school-age children feel the same, although the anxiety tends to fade as they age. In India, a sample of college-age adults reported they felt dental anxiety about 60% of the time. Meanwhile, 5% of the samples said they felt intense, irrational fear of the dentist.
Women are more likely to feel dental anxiety than men, according to this Australian study. Younger patients are also more prone to feeling anxious than their elders.
Unfortunately, people with dental anxiety go to the dentist less often. Some of them avoid going altogether. It often takes a severe dental problem for them before they even think about going to the dentist. And even then, they can be uncooperative and hard to treat if their dentist doesn’t know how to help them feel safe.
Where Does Dental Anxiety Come From?
Public speaking and spiders take all the hate. And yet, dental visits aren’t so far down the list of the most common anxiety triggers. In fact, one study says going to the dentist is the fifth most common cause of anxiety.
Dental anxiety is not odontophobia. The latter is a crippling, persistent, and unrealistic fear of the dentist. The former often only kicks in before a dental visit.
But even though it’s not as bad as a phobia, dental anxiety still negatively affects your experience. It makes you feel more pain for a longer length of time. When the session is over, you tend to have worse memories of the experience.
If you don’t find a way to cope with this anxiety, you may have to deal with it your whole life. And your teeth will bear the brunt of your choices.
There are many reasons why people experience dental anxiety. You may have had a bad experience with a dentist when you were a child. Or you could’ve picked up your parents’ anxiety when they had to go to the dentist.
The portrayals of creepy dentists on TV can also make you end up fearing your real-life dentist. Friendly reminder: If you want to ease dental anxiety, stay away from “Little House of Horrors” for now.
Other fears also overlap with dental anxiety. If you have a fear of losing control, you may tend to avoid lying in a vulnerable position on a dentist’s chair. You may also be scared of being ridiculed for the state of your teeth. Or you may have a fear of trusting others, which translates into fear of trusting your dentist.
How to Manage Dental Anxiety
Managing dental anxiety shouldn’t be a one-way street. You have to find a dentist who understands. A good dentist must be willing to work with you to provide an easy, calming experience to ease your worries.
Communication, of course, is key. Your dentist must be friendly, sensitive, and sympathetic. He must know how to ask for all the right information and inform you about what needs to be done before a procedure. He must also encourage you to ask questions. Otherwise, if you feel you’re in the dark about what’s going to happen, you can feel more anxious than before.
The office environment also plays a big role in causing or soothing dental anxiety. Harsh lights and the sound of the drill whirring from the treatment area can make it worse. If you can, find a dentist who knows how ambiance is crucial in making a better experience for his patients. Soft lights and easy music create a pleasant atmosphere. Relaxing scents like lavender and rosemary can also help relieve anxiety.
9 Things You Can Do Today to Manage Dental Anxiety
Your dentist can’t soothe your anxiety on his own. You have to do a lot of work yourself. Fortunately, it’s the kind of work that doesn’t have you breaking your back for anybody. You only need to learn to relax, take stock of your thoughts, and distract yourself from your fears.
1. Practice progressive relaxation.
Once your muscles relax, it’s literally impossible to feel tense. When you practice relaxing long enough, you start feeling less stressed and less anxious. There are plenty of relaxation techniques you can start practicing now. The most popular of these is Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation.
To practice this technique, contract your toe muscles for five to second seconds. Then relax for 20 seconds. Do the same for every muscle group in your body going upwards until you reach your forehead. You can do this sitting upright or lying down, such as when you’re lying on a dentist’s chair. Check out this PDF for more detailed instructions.
2. Breathe deeply.
You’ve been breathing all your life, so you might think you’re an expert at it. But did you know that most people do it wrong? Most people breathe from the chest. It makes for rapid, shallow breaths that often go with feelings of anxiety.
To breathe properly, you have to breathe deeply. In scientific circles, it’s called diaphragmatic breathing. More often, it’s called belly breathing. Belly breathing and other forms of controlled breathing have been shown to be helpful against anxiety.
You can practice it anywhere at any time. The more you do it, the easier it becomes for you to relax. Start by placing one hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest. Next, breathe in all the way into your lungs, feeling your belly rise as you inhale. Then exhale all the air out. As you do, you should feel your belly soften.
You may also combine belly breathing with muscle relaxation to compound its effects. Contract your muscles as your inhale, then relax as you exhale.
3. Learn how to meditate.
Meditation has been proven many times to help with a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety. By quieting the mind, you gain more control of your nervous system. This helps you manage your emotional responses better.
There are many meditation techniques you can choose from. It’s best to start with a simple one.
Find a quiet place where you won’t be distracted. Using Jacobson’s progressive relaxation technique, relax your muscles starting from the feet up. Now, focus your mind on a single stimulus. It can be your breath, a burning candle, or a word or phrase that you say inside your head. If thoughts come up, simply let them go. Do not engage with your thoughts. Do not make them bigger. And if you find yourself doing so, just come back to what you’re focusing on.
Start by meditating five minutes per day. You can lengthen the duration as you feel it right to do so. Keep practicing until you can meditate for at least 20 minutes every day. It can be tempting to quit a meditation practice even before you’ve begun. That’s okay. If you feel like you didn’t do it right, simply do it again the next day. There is no right or wrong way to meditate.
4. Visualize your way to relaxation.
Visualizing can help you relax while staying focused and alert. A trained dentist can guide you through a relaxing visualization. You can also listen to free guided imagery audios available on YouTube. Here’s a soothing 10-minute walk on the beach to start with. Guided imagery has been shown to decrease depression, anxiety, and stress over time.
5. See a clinical hypnotherapist.
Hypnosis is grossly misunderstood. When most people think of hypnosis, they think of a strange woman in purple robes. She swings a silver pendant and coos you to sleep. In reality, hypnosis is far less woo-woo than that.
A hypnotherapist can help ease dental anxiety by making suggestions that reach the subconscious part of your brain. The goal is to change your underlying beliefs, perceptions, and feelings about going to the dentist.
Some people only need one session with a hypnotherapist to see a result. Others may have to take more time. It’s not clear how some people are more open to the suggestions of a hypnotherapist. However, when they are, they see significant change without feeling like they had to work hard for it.
6. Invest in biofeedback.
When you’re aware of how you’re reacting, it’s easier to take control of your responses. Biofeedback is a mind-body technique that helps you manage your body’s stress responses.
A therapist hooks you up to machines that measure common stress markers. For example, it can check for heart rate, galvanic skin response (or the amount of sweat on your skin), and brain waves. This helps you recognize your stress responses so you can manage them better. In the long run, biofeedback helps decrease anxiety even long after treatment.
7. Visit an acupuncturist.
Inserting needles into the body doesn’t sound like a good way to relax, but studies have shown it can actually help with a variety of dental problems. Do you suffer from dry mouth, gag reflex, and jaw pain? Acupuncture can help.
It can also provide benefits for people with dental anxiety. As this study shows, acupuncture is just as effective as the anxiety drug midazolam in treating dental anxiety.
8. Practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
When you become aware of your thoughts, you can learn to question their validity. And when you question the validity of your thoughts, especially your overly negative thoughts, you can replace them with more empowering ones.
This is CBT in a nutshell. It’s a highly regarded form of therapy that has been shown to help patients with dental anxiety. The goal of CBT is to help you become more aware of your unhelpful thoughts and change them so you can manage your anxiety better.
A therapist can help you apply the rules of CBT to your thought patterns. Alternatively, you can pick up a do-it-yourself self-help manual to start learning the basics. We recommend Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne.
9. Distract yourself.
If you’ve tried all of the above techniques and still feel a twinge of anxiety before a trip to the dentist, don’t fret. You can always distract yourself when you’re sitting on the dental chair.
Bring a pair of headphones and listen to your favorite music, podcast, or audiobook. Some kinds of music are more calming than others. These songs let you relax and distract yourself at the same time. Check out “Weightless” by English band Marconi Union. Neuroscientists at MindLab have found it to be the most relaxing song in the world so far.
If you don’t see changes within a day or a week, don’t give up. It doesn’t take forever, but it may take some time before you see a marked improvement. Keep practicing your chosen relaxation techniques. Keep applying the principles of CBT.
In time, you’ll find you no longer have to quell the butterflies in your stomach when you go see your dentist. And your teeth will thank you for it.