5 Simple Steps for Managing Your Dental Anxiety

The room is white; the blinds are closed. There is noise all around, and people in the operatory next door. You wish there were a poster on the wall, or a TV nearby. ‘Even a stock photo would do,’ you think lifting your skin from the clinging demands of the dental chair. The plastic on the headrest crinkles under your hair, and the background music is only loud enough to catch a vague tune. From the place where you sit, waiting for the dentist to take a seat, everything around seems out of proportion. The dental equipment seems huge!

For 36% of patients, this setting brings enough fear that a dental appointment is out of the question. For many others, this anxiety is real, as well, though at a lesser extent. Perhaps these patients will stop in for a cleaning now and then, but not regularly. And mostly out of pain – a toothache or increased cold sensitivity. ‘Something would have to be wrong to want to sit back down in that chair!’ shouts that voice of dental anxiety ringing through our anxious heads.

With the courage to come to the office, these patients cling to the armrests to let out their tension and crinkle their noses, wincing in fear. This is natural, for the feeling of fear can be even worse than physical pain. And this reaction is common – more common than many patients even realize. More importantly, it’s far from a sign of weakness. Whether your dental anxiety comes from a bad childhood experience, a fear of that sharp, pointy object that shall not be named, or simply a discomfort with everything and anything medical, your fear is justified. It’s yours. It’s real. It’s okay.

And, as your oral physician, trained in disciplines of medical, dental and overall patient care, your dentist is there to help you through that anxiety to the smiling result of a great dental appointment!

But believe me, I get it: there’s a level of safety and relief that comes with being in control. If you know that things will go well, or at least progress with a bit more ease than your last visit or that childhood visit that you fear, then that giant dental chair won’t seem so out of reach. AND there are five simple steps you can take to be in control of that next appointment, and stay a leap ahead of your dental anxiety. In fact, through the ADA MouthHealthy resources, you may have already found three similar ideas!

  1. Meditate: Before leaving home close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and a slow exhale out. Repeat this breath, counting to ten as you inhale. And ten as you exhale. Feel your feet on the floor, your weight against the couch. Feel the sensation of your shirt on your skin, and your socks on your toes. Starting with your hand, collect all your tension. Squeeze your hand into a fist, and hold it there, grasped in your palm. And with the next exhale, let that tension go. Now do the same, moving to your forearm, and your upper back, your toes, and your feet. When you’ve moved through your body, take a few more deep breaths. Notice your feet on the floor. Come back to the light of the room. And, when you are ready, open your eyes. You are ready for whatever this appointment brings. In a simple and fast meditation, you’ve let go of some tension, and you can do it again, at any time – in the car, in the waiting room, and even in the dental chair. You have the strength to let the tension go.
  2. Prepare: The dental office is filled with music and sounds, and even televisions and pictures. But sometimes, in the stress of the moment, you can’t hear a thing. You can’t focus clearly. So, for this next appointment, come prepared! Roll up your headphones and throw your ipod or cellphone in the car. Even bring yourself an eye mask if that soothes your senses. As long as your methods of relaxation leave your mouth and teeth free, your dentist will be glad to have you use them.
  3. Ask for Resources: While at the dental office, you may receive an overload of information. You need treatments X, Y, and Z. Treatment X takes W number of appointments. Appointment 1, 2, and 3, are t, s, and q minutes long. It’s a lot for anyone to take in – even another dentist! And just the information quantity alone can lead to anxiety. So ask for resources. Ask for the information in written form. Ask to have a minute to look things over so you can formulate your questions. You can gain a sense of calm by just having the extra time and materials before you.
  4. Request Control: I know, I already said you can have control simply through the resources you bring and the wellness exercises you employ. But, guess what?! You can have even more control than that! For some patients, knowing you can raise your hand to request a break is control enough. For others, being able to hold the suction is an empowering relief. If you don’t know what is best for you, try out different levels of control. Ask your dentist if you can hold the suction or carry a mirror. Ask if you can have your spouse or friend in the room if that’s what you need. Try out different levels of control, and remember that you, too, are an integral member of this dental team.
  5. Finally, plan for what comes next: Uncertainty is one of the greatest contributors to anxiety in any situation. We grapple with making decisions on a daily basis because the outcome is not clear. But with a dental appointment, much of the aftermath can be clear. You can know who is taking you home, or if you are driving yourself. You can know where you will go next, and what you will do. You can have a plan in mind for the hour or two that follow your appointment, so that your mind can be filled with those day-to-day plans while your dentist concerns him/herself with the tooth-to-tooth details.

Dental anxiety is common, but it is certainly not something you have to face alone. Use these tips, bring your ideas to your next dental appointment, and work with your dentist to make each visit just a little bit easier. Fear has no right to take away from your beautiful and healthy smile!

For more details on managing your dental anxiety, check out this post by 2019 DMD Candidate, Mirissa D. Price. Do you have ideas for managing dental anxiety or anxiety in general? Comment and share! We would love to learn from you!

Mirissa D. Price is a 2019 DMD Candidate at Harvard School of Dental Medicine and future pediatric dentist. She serves as a Scholar of Dental Education at Harvard School of Dental Medicine and a Give Kids a Smile Leadership Ambassador. Mirissa’s research and outreach interests include social-emotional development in youth; addressing barriers and access to pediatric dental care; interprofessional collaboration; and dental education. As a child, doctors told Mirissa that she would live in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair, crippled by pain. Instead, Mirissa uses her medical experiences to inspire others, living each day with a passion to spread pain-free smiles through her dental work, writing, improv comedy performances, and nonprofit work with children.

You can stay up to date with Mirissa’s writing at mirissaprice.wordpress.com and follow @Mirissa_D_Price on Twitter or Facebook. You can even take home a few inspirations of your own, at Mirissa’s Etsy shop, A Smile Blooms.

© 2017 Mirissa D. Price: A Dental Student, A Writer, A Journey to Share.

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