Many people feel uncomfortable and anxious about visiting the dentist. It causes them to delay their appointments, or worse, cancel them all together. It’s not good to put-off taking care of your oral health, so if feeling anxious is keeping you out of the dentist’s office, it’s something you need to overcome. In this article we’ll be discussing dental anxiety coping techniques and how to speak to your dentist about how they can help make your visit easier for you.
Dental anxiety is a common problem but luckily there are ways to manage it. Usually, self coping tools are enough, but if the condition is more severe you may need to enlist the help of a counsellor or psychologist so you can start taking care of your oral health properly. Let’s discuss what you can do to get back in the dentist’s chair.
Dental anxiety: What does it mean?
Dental anxiety encompasses any feelings of fear, stress and anxiety related to a dental setting. It often means patients will avoid dental treatment for extended periods, which can lead to a whole host of avoidable oral health issues.
For example, if even the thought of going to a dental office sparks fear and panic, then you’re likely suffering with dental anxiety. Things like dental drills, anaesthesia needles, or having a dentist working on your mouth are other common triggers that can cause intense feelings of anxiety. There are also mental health conditions such as general anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that can increase the likelihood of experiencing debilitating anxiety around dental work. Having had a previous traumatic experience involving the head or neck area is also a potential cause.
What are the common symptoms of dental anxiety
While the symptoms you experience can vary, there are some general complaints that commonly get associated with dental anxiety. These include:
- Nervous sweating
- Rapid heart rate
- Heart palpitations
- Low blood pressure
- Feeling like you are going to faint
- Signs of visible distress like crying
- Withdrawn demeanour
These symptoms are not only uncomfortable, but they can often leave patients unable to force themselves to visit the dentist. It doesn’t matter what type of dental treatment they are scheduled for; the anxiety is always prevalent. Unfortunately, dental care is needed, and the patient likely know this, which only adds to the pressure they feel.
Dental anxiety will affect your oral health
The reason bi-annual dental checkups are recommended is to keep patients’ mouths healthy. It doesn’t matter how thorough a home care routine is, it will not do a good enough job to stop plaque from building up. Everyone needs the “deep clean” that only a professional dental cleaning can provide, at least twice a year. It’s one of the basic rules for taking care of your teeth and your oral health. By avoiding dental appointments, you run the risk of dental issues getting worse and eventually requiring more complex treatments.
Regular checkups and dental cleanings are important because they not only keep your teeth in great shape, but they also enable dentists to find problems early on when they are easier to fix. For example, your dentist will notice if a cavity is starting to form, in which case a tiny filling can repair the damage. Leave it unattended and the cavity grows, requiring larger fillings, and eventually it will decay so much that the tooth needs to be removed. Visiting for checkups also means dentists are able to check for oral cancer and other soft tissue diseases. It’s very important to get into a clinic regularly, but dental anxiety can often get in the way.
What causes patients to experience dental anxiety?
Dental anxiety is a type of general anxiety that manifests specifically around the dental setting. There are many different reasons that patients may feel this anxiety, including:
- General anxiety disorder
- Post traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (such as an obsession around germs or hygiene)
- Other phobias such as claustrophobia (fear of being in closed spaces), and agoraphobia (fear of being trapped)
- A previous bad experience at the dentist
- Fear of a loss of control
- Trust issues
- Dental care viewed as an invasion of personal space
Often there is no single cause, but instead a general sense of unease is present that keeps patients from visiting the dentist. It doesn’t matter what the reason, you’re doing yourself a disservice by avoiding appointments.
Who does dental anxiety affect
Dental anxiety can affect patients of any age and from all walks of life. It’s often tricky to manage this type of anxiety because it can be difficult to point out a specific cause. Fortunately, with careful management and proper support, most patients are able to manage their anxiety well enough so they can visit the dentist, even if it is still an uncomfortable experience. Dentists are aware of the problems some people face during appointments, so they know how to make the situation as stress-free as possible.
Coping strategies for dental anxiety
There are many methods available that can be effective at helping patients manage their anxiety. It’s important to note that what is effective for someone else may not work for you, so testing out different methods until you find something that suits your situation might be necessary.
Here are some coping strategies you can try out:
Practicing deep breathing
Controlled breathing is a great way to calm your mind and your body so you can ward off an anxiety or panic attack. It’s been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone levels and increase feelings of well-being or calm. It is a coping technique that you can perform anywhere.
To practice deep breathing you’ll want to sit or lie down so you can focus on your breathing. Inhale deeply through your nose, hold your breath for two seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth until your lungs are empty. Pause for two seconds and repeat. It’s best to take full breaths, starting your inhale with your abdomen and finishing at the top of your chest. Simply reverse the steps for your exhale. Perform at least 10 repetitions, or continue until you feel calm again.
There are many different forms of meditation that could help with dental anxiety, including:
Breath focus – let your mind focus on the passage of breath in and out of your body – similar to deep breathing
Mindfulness meditation – concentrate on what your body is feeling, and your mind is thinking, without reacting to anything emotionally
Object meditation – focus your mind on an object, taking in all its details. This helps redirect focus away from your anxiety to help you regain your calm
Meditation is possible anywhere, including the waiting room or the dentist’s chair. It’s a phenomenal technique to steal your minds attention away from worry and one we recommend you try. It’s useful even if you don’t suffer from anxiety. A great little tool to have!
The idea is that you shift your focus around your body (or major muscle groups) in a circle, starting wherever you’d like. If you choose to start with the toes of your left foot, you would curl them tight for three seconds and then relax. Next move up to your left calf muscle and flex that, holding for three seconds before relaxing. Then move to your upper leg, then your abdomen, your left hand, left forearm, left bicep, left pectoral muscle and so forth until you’ve completed a full circle around the muscle groups in your body. Muscle relaxation is a great technique that helps reduce lactic acid buildup and calms your mind so you can relax.
If you let your mind run rampant, conjuring up all the images of what could go wrong, then your anxiety will own you. Using a form of distraction, be it music, videos on your phone, a podcast, or a book – to keep your mind focused on other things is a proven method of quelling anxiety so you can get your dental checkup.
Bring a friend
Having someone go with you to the dentist can really help lessen your anxiety. They’ll be able to offer support through physical reassurance and mental distraction to help you lower your anxiety level.
How can your dentist help you overcome dental anxiety?
Dentists and their staff are accustomed to treating patients who suffer with dental anxiety. It’s not a new topic and they know how stressful it can be, so they’re always ready to help.
It’s always a good idea to speak with your dentist about your dental anxiety so that it’s not a secret. A good way to feel less panicked is to have your dentist walk you through the treatment beforehand, so you’ll know what to expect and can ask questions about things you’re unsure of. It’s also often a relief to have it off your chest so you don’t have to pretend like you’re not anxious – remember it’s perfectly normal.
If your dental anxiety is very extreme, then a good dentist might suggest a medical option to lower your anxiety. There are typically three main options available; a mild does of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), oral anxiolytic tablets to relieve anxiety, or sedation dentistry. Through consultation with your dentist, it will be determined which method is best suited to your needs and the dental treatment.
Nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
After a mask is fitted to your face, you’ll breathe in a mixture of nitrous oxide and oxygen. After a few minutes you should feel totally relaxed, and a bit giggly, but still awake. It wears off really quickly and isn’t debilitating after the fact.
Most patients describe it as a very pleasant feeling and it works to relieve their anxiety.
Oral anxiolytic tablets
These oral anxiety medications require a prescription but are mild and designed to help patients relax. The dosage is taken about an hour before treatment, so it’s active when it’s time for your dental appointment. This medication should only be taken after discussion with your dentist, and you won’t be able to safely operate a motor vehicle until it wears off.
Sedation dentistry options
There are two sedation dentistry options used by the dental industry to treat patients. The lighter of the two options is a conscious sedation, where a patient receives the medication through an IV drip. This sedation will make you feel relaxed and sleepy but it wont knock you out. The effects may take some time to wear off, so you’ll have to arrange transportation to get you home after your appointment.
The other type of sedation is a general anaesthesia, but it is usually only available in a hospital or at a specialized dental surgery clinic. This is the most advanced sedation option and often requires a prior consultation with an anaesthesiologist. It will render you fully asleep and take longer to wear off. It is reserved for dental surgeries or extreme cases of dental anxiety only.
If you suffer from anxiety, then chances are visiting the dentist is a real challenge. Kudos if you drag yourself into the office anyway, but if you can’t overcome your fear, then at least you know there are some coping options available for you to test out.
Whatever you do, don’t let dental anxiety stop you from visiting your dentist regularly because you don’t want to put your oral health in jeopardy. If in doubt, let your dentist know what’s going on, and let them recommend how to best handle the situation. It’s up to you to overcome dental anxiety and take control of your oral health. You can do it!
Rod Madale is a dental assistant who has studied the adverse effects of dental anxiety through his 15 years of clinic experience. He regularly provides dental articles to health blogs focusing on patient care around the globe. His aim is to teach and inspire people to have the confidence to achieve their goals.