Afraid of the dentist? You aren’t alone. Many avoid the dentist altogether because of fear or anxiety and as many as 70% may go to the dentist only when something is wrong, avoiding vital preventive care. Two-thirds of the patients have had a bad experience, the remaining third may have anxiety disorders or post traumatic stress. Some people are so afraid they will panic just driving or walking past a dentists’ office. However, dental phobia can result in people not seeking proper care – and in addition to tooth loss, this can result in an elevated risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and oral cancer.
So, what should you do about it? First and foremost – talk to your dentist. Dentists are highly familiar with dealing with patients who range from mildly anxious to terrified. They and their staff can adjust treatment to your needs. One thing that helps is to increase your control through the procedure. Agree on hand signals to get the dentist to back off, and talk to them about things you can do to “help” with treatment. The most important thing is that your dentist needs to know you may be nervous. One thing to consider is asking your dentist if you can just go to their office and talk to them for a bit before receiving treatment, so you get to know them a little bit. They can help treat your dental anxiety through direct therapeutic exposure, working with your dentist to help you get into the chair with less stress.
Another good idea is to listen to good music or funny audiobooks or podcasts on your phone while you are in the waiting room – or even in the chair. Some dentists have televisions, and feel free to ask them to change the channel to something funny (or at least less depressing than the news). Music or a podcast can also drown out the sound of the drill.
Also, remember that caffeine and sugar increase anxiety. Instead, try to eat a meal or high protein snacks before your appointment. Protein has a calming effect. Schedule your appointment for a time that reduces your stress – dental anxiety can easily be exacerbated by stress about getting to work for a meeting. Take at least an hour more off work than you think you need – if you end up getting there early, you will look good to your boss and you will not panic about being late. Early morning appointments can help as the dentist is less likely to be running late. Some people also find working out before an appointment helps them relax.
Finally, stay comfortable. Avoid wearing a suit or tight-fitting clothes if possible, and avoid high heels (which can cause logistical problems in the chair). Also avoid hairstyles that are uncomfortable when you sit back in the chair, unless you find that a good distraction from the drill. Consider taking a “stress ball” or similar to hold while the dentist works. Also, don’t forget to breathe. Relaxation breathing is particularly useful – try counting to seven as you inhale and then four as you exhale. It might be worth looking into mindfulness techniques (a form of meditation) as well.
You do your health no service if you avoid the dentist until you have a bad toothache or, worse, just live with the pain. Dental anxiety is a common phobia and nothing to be ashamed of – and your dentist has seen it all before.