Illustration by Daria Krikunova.
Few would describe the buzz of a dental drill as a soothing noise – and the scent of carnation oil has just as few fans. For many, the discomfort caused by a dental office goes a step further and can easily get in the way of your next check-up.
What is dental anxiety?
Dental anxiety is a type of phobia: a series of unpleasant emotional or physical reactions caused by an environment that is considered stressful. Some of the most popular causes for phobia – like spiders, the dark, or heights – are indeed dangerous, but they shouldn’t interfere with your daily tasks. Different studies show that anywhere between 20% and 60% of people experience some degree of anxiety when visiting the dentist (1). Up to 29% of them stated that they had avoided going to the dentist because of their fear (2).
Typical symptoms of dental anxiety include fast heartbeats, sweating, and even shortness of breath when coming to the dentist. Because of this, many people with dental anxiety cancel or postpone appointments, letting their oral health issues get worse. In turn, this just raises the pressure when it’s time for the next appointment (3).
Looking to break this cycle?
Here are 8 tips to try out:
1. Talk to your dentist
Think of your dentist as an ally. Let him or her know about your dental anxiety during your first visit or when setting up the appointment. Chances are that they will be glad for a chance to help you out. If you are willing to have an open, frank conversation with them, they can also tweak some details of their consultation to keep your fear in check.
2. Choose a quiet time
In general, waiting rooms are rarely calm environments. If possible, try to schedule your appointment for a quieter time of the day. Depending on the area where you live, this may mean early mornings, Saturdays, or middle of the morning on a Monday. In case of doubt, just ask the assistant when making your appointment.
3. Identify your triggers
This exercise may be a bit uncomfortable at first, but it is vital if you want to target your relaxation efforts efficiently. Think of the scariest or more uncomfortable parts of a dental procedure. Then, identify which ones you would be able to change or minimize.
4. Keep your coffee consumption down
The sense of alertness provided by a good cup of coffee may be essential for your morning, but it can cause your anxiety to spike. On the day of the appointment, try to take a bit less or to replace it with herbal tea.
5. Set up a “safe signal”
One of the frequently-reported causes for dental anxiety is the idea that you won’t be able to protest if something feels wrong. You can counter this by agreeing on a hand signal that will let your dentist know if you feel uncomfortable and need a break.
6. Know what to expect
Fear of bad news is a major cause of anxiety across all health services. This can be especially potent if you have missed one or more appointments already. The Adent App can deflate some of this uncertainty: just run a self-assessment to monitor your dental health. The app will also give you fact-checked information and realistic tips to maximize your prevention strategy.
7. Try some breathing exercises
Rapid or shallow breathing is often a sign of anxiety, but it can also worsen it. You can break this cycle with guided breathing exercises, although these may require some practice (4). Make some time before the appointment to get a good grasp of the techniques involved.
8. Bring soothing tunes
The sounds made by drills and suction devices are unpleasant at best, so they are rarely included in relaxation playlists. Keep your mind out of them with a set of earbuds and your music, an audiobook, or even an audio-based guided meditation. For best results, use small earbuds so they don’t get in the way.
The symptoms of anxiety feel like a very real threat to the people suffering them. There are many self-care strategies that you can try out to manage these fears. Be open and honest with your dentist to design the plan that works best for you!
1. ter Horst G, de Wit CA. Review of behavioural research in dentistry 1987–1992: Dental anxiety, dentist-patient relationship, compliance and attendance. International Dental Journal 1993; 43: 265–278 Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8406957
2. Armfield, J. M., Stewart, J. F., & Spencer, A. J. (2007). The vicious cycle of dental fear: exploring the interplay between oral health, service utilization and dental fear. BMC oral health, 7, 1. Available at https://bmcoralhealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6831-7-1
3. Moore R. (1991). The Phenomenon of Dental Fear - Studies in Clinical Diagnosis, Measurement and Treatment (Ph.D. thesis). Fællestrykeriet, Aarhus University; Aarhus Denmark. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281745978_The_Phenomenon_of_Dental_Fear_-_Studies_in_Clinical_Diagnosis_Measurement_and_Treatment
4. Armfield J, Heaton L. (2013). Management of fear and anxiety in the dental clinic: a review. Australian Dental Journal. 2013;58(4):390–531. doi:10.1111/adj.12118
Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24320894