Dental anxiety is real. And it can have serious health impacts if allowed to interfere with dental care.

Studies estimate that as many as 60% of dental patients have anywhere from mild to severe dental fear, and as many as 20% of Americans actually avoid going to the dentist because of their anxiety.

Though the exact cause of dental anxiety can vary, the most common is believed to stem from a past bad experience at the dentist. Other causes can include hearing or reading about negative encounters, as well as parental modeling.

image of person afraid of the dentist due to dental anxiety

Dental phobia (odontophobia and dentophobia) is an intense fear of anything that has to do with the dentist. Anxiety can arise whenever a person just thinks about a dental office, the patient room, dentist, and dental procedures.

People who suffer from dental anxiety often have a difficult time sleeping the night before a dental appointment. The phobia may also cause sufferers to feel physically ill, faint, and/or short of breath.

It’s important to know that these feelings are okay to discuss openly with your dentist. He or she can help customize your next dental experience to best relieve your anxiety.

Just as dental phobia starts from a negative experience, overcoming dental phobia starts by positive experience with your dentist.

Below are some pointers for working through dental anxiety:

1) Communicate – Your dentist can work with you to give you a step-by-step of any procedure or appointment, eliminate specific triggers, build in time for breaks, and administer calming medication, if necessary. In addition, just the simple act of talking about your fears can actually lower your stress.

2) Practice calming techniques – Find what works for you, whether it’s deep breathing exercises, visualization, taking breaks, using distractions like music, a weighted blanket, and/or simply learning as much about the procedure as possible.

3) Take breaks – Your dentist can schedule longer appointments for you, allowing you to take breaks as anxiety builds and needs to be released. Longer appointments give you time for a settling-in phase at the beginning, breaks during the appointment, and a calming period at the end.

4) Take control – Your dentist should be willing to allow for extra time and for breaks as needed. You should be given full authority to request a break at any time during the procedure, no questions asked. Knowing that you’re in control goes a long way toward easing anxiety.

5) Medicate – Sedation can range from taking the edge off with an oral medication to slipping into a semi-conscious “twilight sleep” with IV-administered sedative. No matter what type of sedative is chosen, the sedation dentist and team closely monitors the patient throughout the procedure.

Finally, don’t saddle yourself with unrealistic expectations that you can overcome your dental anxiety with one “good” dental experience. Working through anxieties and phobias takes time.

dental anxiety can be like tightroping a fear

The key with dental anxiety is to make a commitment to yourself to move forward and give yourself guilt-free permission to find your own path at your own pace. You deserve to be healthy, and a big part of your good health starts with your mouth.