Tips From Dental Phobics

Here are some tried-and-tested tips for overcoming dental phobias and fears from our readers and forum members. Feel free to pick and mix!

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

1. Find the right dentist

Cupid with arrow

This really is the key! Overcoming dental phobia is not about no longer being afraid of the dentist, but about no longer being afraid of YOUR dentist:

How to find a phobic-friendly dentist

2. Let your dentist know about your fears

Let your potential dentist know how scared you are and what you are afraid of. Dentists are not mindreaders, and they won’t be able to help if they don’t know. You can use this handy patient form if you’re lost for words.

3. Just have a chat, away from the chair

If you like, arrange for the first visit to be just a chat, away from the chair. Maybe there is a “neutral” room in the dental practice where you can talk. We’ve even had forum members meet their potential dentists out in the car park because they were too scared to set foot in a dental practice.

4. Treat the first visit like a job interview

Treat the first visit like a job interview – you’re interviewing the dentist to see if you want to hire them. Are you and your dentist a good fit? Do you like them?

5. Tackling shame and embarrassment

You may feel mortified at the prospect of having to open your mouth and letting a dentist see the mess. Be assured that most dentists are doers, not really bothered about what the teeth are like, and will just plan how to fix them. Also, it’s highly unlikely that the dentist will not have seen much worse during their careers.

To get over the “my teeth are disgusting and the worst the dentist has ever seen” syndrome, arrange that the first examination is just a quick look. You can even do this outside the chair, standing up rather than sitting down.

Do let your dentist know how you feel, and that you’re scared of their reaction and what they will think.

6. Arrange a stop signal

Stick figure holding up a stop sign with their left hand

Always agree on a stop signal. The most common example is raising your left hand. Then, test your dentist by trying it out!

Having a coping signal (for example, a thumbs up) is also helpful. That way, your dentist can check if you’re doing ok without you having to speak.

If you don’t feel able to give a stop signal, let your dentist know. Maybe you can practice giving the stop signal together:

To help my patients feel in control, I usually tell them to count to 10 (internally) then we’ll stop on some agreed signal, then a count to 20 and so on.

Or else, put your hand around your nurse’s wrist very lightly. If you need your dentist to stop, just squeeze their wrist. They can then let your dentist know to stop. You could also bring a dog clicker, so your dentist can stop when you press the button.

7. Bring a friend

If you like, bring a trusted friend or family member with you. No anxious-friendly dentist will object to an extra person in the room.

Of course, if you’re scared of embarrassing yourself in front of your nearest and dearest, you can go it alone!

8. Bring a blanket or a comforting object

A blanket, or a weighted blanket, can make you feel safe and protected.

Or bring a comforting object. Examples include lucky charms, stuffed toys, stress balls, or fidget widgets.

9. Clothing

Wear an outfit you feel confident and comfortable in.

10. Listen to music or watch TV

More and more dentists these days are offering a choice of music, or the radio may be playing in the background. If you prefer to listen to your own music, see if your device can be connected up to their loudspeakers, or else bring your headphones to listen to music on your mobile phone.

If you’re planning on listening to your own music, make a playlist of songs that you’d like to listen to.

Some dental practices even have a TV on the ceiling and will offer you a choice of programmes to watch.

11. The dreaded chair

Do you absolutely hate that feeling when the chair goes back? You’re not alone – it makes many people feel vulnerable and exposed.

Here’s a tip: ask if you can stay sitting up while the chair is reclined into the position the dentist wants it. Once the chair is in its final position, you can then take all the time you need to lie back and get comfortable. This avoids the horrible loss of control feeling you get when the chair goes back.

Alternatively, ask your dentist if you can operate the button that makes the chair move back. That way, you can move it back gradually at your own pace.

12. Close your eyes

Many people on our forum have said that they find dental treatment easier with their eyes closed. Having said that, others prefer to keep their eyes open. Or you might want to look during certain parts of the appointment, but not during others. The choice is yours!

13. Baby Steps

Unless you’re in acute pain and need urgent treatment, prove to yourself that you can handle one aspect of your fears before addressing the next. For example, start with a “simple” procedure such as a cleaning, and work up to more complex treatments.

14. Short bursts of treatment

Start off with doing treatment in short bursts. For example, use the ultrasonic cleaner to the count of 3, then take a break, then try another 3 seconds, until you feel confident that you’re comfortable and able to cope.

15. Explanations and running commentaries

A lightbulb moment

Ask your dentist to explain the procedure to you before it begins. You may also want to ask for a running commentary about what they are about to do, what sensations and sounds to expect, and how long each part of the procedure will last.

If you’d rather not know (not everyone does), let your dentist know!

16. Check out the equipment

If you like, ask your dentist to show and demonstrate to you any tools or materials they’re going to use. You may find it helpful to know what they look, sound, and feel like. Many people find that holding the instruments themselves, and having them demonstrated (for example, on your finger), really helps.

Eyes wide shut

Of course, you can close your eyes if you’d rather not see the instruments. But you may still want to know what’s happening:

When I get treatment or even just a check-up, I have my eyes tightly shut through the whole thing. But I am told exactly what is about to happen and always asked if I would like to feel it on my hand first – which I usually do. So without having to see the “scrapey thing”, I can feel it pulled along the back of my hand or have a puff of air blown onto it. So there is no surprise when I feel the same sensation a moment later on my gums or teeth.

17. Take a break

Agree with your dentist on taking scheduled breaks during treatment. Natural pauses in the flow of procedures can also be used to relax and rest a little.

18. Time of day

Many people like the first appointment of the day, because there’s less time to dwell on it in the hours beforehand (that’s if you can get some shuteye!).

Picture of a clock - choosing a good time of day is important when making a dental appointment

If you’re not a morning person, the slot right after the lunch break is a good choice. Dentists often run late, so being the first patient after lunch means you don’t have to wait around. Or else, ask for the last appointment of the day. That way, you won’t feel like you’re holding up the next patient.

You could also ask the dentist if they have a favourite time of day for seeing their anxious patients!

19. Aromatherapy

Put an essential oil such as lavender oil around your nose while in the waiting room.

20. Wear dark sunglasses

Although you’ll be given safety glasses, these are not always particularly dark. So if you hate bright lights, bring your own sunglasses just in case. Wearing your own glasses can also help with feeling in control.

21. Hold the suction tube

You may find it helpful to hold the saliva ejector (a thin flexible suction tube) to hoover up any pooling saliva and give you a feeling that you’re participating in the treatment.

22. Concentrate on your breathing

Breathe deeply and evenly – for example, in for 5 seconds, out for 5 seconds. When breathing in, inhale slowly through your nose while pushing your belly out.

Also pay special attention to tense areas in your body: for example, you may find that your shoulders tense up. Then, make a conscious effort to relax those muscles in your body.

More information on relaxation techniques

23. Imagine being in a relaxing place

Lying on a hammock under the sun

Some people find it helpful to imagine themselves in a relaxing place. Relaxation or guided meditation apps or audio tracks can work well – both during an appointment as well as in the days or weeks leading up to it.

24. Look into sedation options

The two most common types of sedation in the UK and Ireland are inhalation sedation (nitrous oxide) and IV (intravenous) sedation.

  • Inhalation sedation allows people to feel relaxed and chilled, and this can make everything that bit easier.
  • IV sedation is the strongest form of sedation available. Although you’re not fully put to sleep, people don’t tend to remember much (if anything) about the treatment.

Sedation can be a great option if you’re very anxious about dental treatment, or if you need a lot of treatment done. IV sedation is also great for potentially unpleasant procedures like removing impacted wisdom teeth.

But not everyone likes the idea of sedation. You can read more about the pros and cons here.

24. Hypnosis

Hypnosis can be really useful for helping with needle phobia or a sensitive gag reflex, to give but two examples.

Make sure you choose an appropriately trained professional who is a member of a recognised society, for example, BSECH, BSMDH, BSMDH (Scotland), BSMDH Mets & South, or the RSM Section of Hypnosis & Psychosomatic Medicine.

25. Needle phobia tips

Numbing gel

Talk to your dentist about using numbing gel on your gums if you have a fear of needles. Many dentists nowadays always use numbing gel, but it’s best to check! The key is to leave it on for long enough to work its magic.

Find a dentist who uses the Wand

If you are phobic of dental injections, see if there are any dentists in your area who offer The Wand or similar systems.

Just have an injection without any treatment

If you are scared of needles, you may want to try an injection without any treatment. That way, you can prove to yourself that you can handle one aspect of your fears before addressing the next.

26. Drill phobia tips

Look, feel and listen

Have a look at the drill, have a listen to the drill, hold the handpiece yourself. This can really help put things into perspective and stops the imagination from running wild.

Blend out the sounds

Some people find it helpful to listen to music using earphones or noise-cancelling headphones. They may not blend out all high-frequency sounds, but every little helps!

Find a dentist who uses an electric handpiece

Electric drills are quieter than the traditional air turbine ones. Try emailing the dentists on your shortlist and ask if they use an electric drill.

27. Gag reflex tips

Actually, we’ve got a whole page of tips on this very topic here on Dental Fear Central:

28. Tips for Abuse Survivors

Survivors of sexual, physical or emotional abuse often face particular challenges when it comes to dental treatment. We have a lot of information on this topic here:

29. Celebrate

Bunging flags: time to celebrate

Have a treat lined up as a reward – a parcel that will be waiting, a special drink, a bunch of flowers cake for after dinner, a meal out, whatever!

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