Dental anxiety is fear and stress about seeing a dentist or being in a dental setting. It can range from mild to severe, in which case it would be classified as a phobia.
Dental anxiety and even dental phobia is understandable. We are naturally cautious about things that go into our mouths—especially if they’re sharp. Our teeth are also highly sensitive.
But avoiding the dentist can lead to bigger problems down the road. So it’s important to find ways to cope with dental anxiety.
Symptoms of Dental Anxiety
The symptoms of dental anxiety can vary from person to person. They may include:
- Feeling tense or nervous
- Having a racing heart
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Wanting to flee the dental office
If you have any of these symptoms, you may have dental anxiety. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that between 9% and 20% of Americans avoid going to the dentist because of anxiety.
Causes of Dental Anxiety
There are a number of factors that can contribute to dental anxiety, including:
- Negative experiences in the past: If you’ve had a bad experience at the dentist in the past, it’s understandable that you would be anxious about returning. Dental fear and anxiety in pediatric patients can result in long-term problems for adults later on, so it’s important to know how to ease your child’s dental fear early on.
- Lack of control: When you’re in the dental chair, you may feel like you’re not in control of the situation. This can be especially true if you’re receiving a procedure that you’re not familiar with.
- Fear of needles: Needles are often associated with pain, so it’s not surprising that many people are anxious about them.
- Fear of the unknown: If you don’t know what to expect at the dentist, it can be scary. This is why it’s important to find a dental team that you trust and feel comfortable with.
How a Dental Phobia Can Affect Your Oral Health
If you have a dental phobia, you may avoid going to the dentist altogether. This can lead to serious oral health problems, such as tooth decay and gum disease.
The irony here is that as these problems progress, they often require more complicated, intrusive and painful dental procedures. This can create a vicious cycle in which dental anxiety leads to poor oral health, which then leads to more dental anxiety.
Regular dental checkups and cleanings not only help keep your teeth and gums healthy, but also prevent serious problems before they occur. Oral screening for cancer is also an important part of routine dental care.
If you suffer from chronic fear of the dentist, you may avoid seeking dental care altogether. This can have serious consequences for your oral health.
Fortunately, there are ways to deal with dental anxiety.
Managing Dental Anxiety Yourself
Talk To Your Dentist
First, talk to your dentist about your fears. He or she can help you understand what is causing your anxiety and offer suggestions for dealing with it.
Some people find that simply knowing what to expect can help ease their anxiety. Ask your dentist to explain the procedures and treatments you will receive.
There’s no need to feel embarrassed about your fears. Your dentist has probably heard it all before and is used to working with patients who have dental anxiety.
Find A Dentist You Trust
If you don’t feel comfortable with your current dentist, it may be time to find a new one.
Look for a dentist who is sympathetic to your concerns and is willing to take the time to answer your questions. It’s also important to find a dentist who uses the latest technology and pain management techniques.
There are a number of psychological techniques that can help you deal with your dental anxiety.
One method is called systematic desensitization. This involves gradually exposing yourself to the things that make you anxious, starting with the least anxiety-provoking situation and working up to the most anxiety-provoking one.
For example, you might start by looking at pictures of dental procedures, then watching videos of dental procedures, and then eventually going to the dentist for a real procedure.
Other techniques include:
- Deep breathing
- Guided imagery
- Distractions (listening to music)
- Biofeedback (these techniques can help you relax and feel more in control during dental procedures)
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Deciding on a signal with your dentist indicating that it’s time to take a break
It’s important to remember that everyone responds differently to anxiety-reducing techniques, so it may take some trial and error to find the ones that work best for you. If your dental anxiety is severe, you may need to consult a mental health professional who can help you manage your anxiety with therapy, medication or both.
Modern Dental Solutions
Relative Analgesia (Laughing Gas)
If you’re extremely anxious about dental procedures, your dentist may recommend that you receive relative analgesia (also known as laughing gas or happy gas). This is a type of sedation dentistry that can help you feel more relaxed during dental procedures.
Relative analgesia is a form of light sedation that uses a mixture of nitrous oxide and oxygen. You breathe the gas through a mask that’s placed over your nose and mouth. The gas quickly enters your bloodstream and produces a state of relaxation.
You’ll remain aware of your surroundings and be able to respond to questions from the dental team, but you may not remember much about the procedure once it’s over.
It’s important to have someone else drive you home after your appointment if you’ve had relative analgesia because the effects of the gas can last for a few hours.
If you’re extremely anxious about dental treatment, you may be a good candidate for general anesthesia. This is a form of deep sedation that uses medication to make you unconscious during the procedure.
You won’t be able to respond to questions or follow instructions from the dental team while you’re under general anesthesia, but you won’t feel any pain or anxiety either.
As with relative analgesia, someone else will need to drive you home after your appointment if you’ve had general anesthesia.
Some people may feel a little drowsy or nauseous when they first wake up, but these side effects usually wear off quickly.
If you have dental anxiety, your dentist may prescribe medication for you to take before your appointment. This can help to relieve any anxiety or discomfort you’re feeling.
Examples of medication that may be prescribed include:
- Anti-anxiety medication
- Pain relief medication
Your dentist will usually only prescribe a small amount of medication, as they’ll want you to be awake enough to follow their instructions during the appointment.
Dental anxiety is a common issue, but there are ways to manage it and make sure you’re able to get the dental care you need. Talk to your dentist about your anxiety and they’ll be able to work with you to find the best solution.