“I’m going to pass out the minute I walk through the door. I’ll be panicking, crying, or shaking uncontrollably.”
Many people have a fear of losing control and/or making a fool out of themselves if they managed to visit a dentist. You may be worried about crying uncontrollably, or fainting, or having a panic attack.
Other people are not so much scared of losing control or making a fool out of themselves, but are deathly afraid of panic attacks themselves (in other situations as well – not just dentist-related). If you fear having panic attacks, also visit our panic attacks page!
How can I stop myself from panicking?
If you’re scared of crying uncontrollably, fainting, or panicking, it may be because you’re trying to be too brave.
Trying to suppress our fears tends to backfire. Most of us will have experienced situations where we tried to fight our anxiety, only to find that this strategy adds fuel to the fire and makes us more, rather than less, anxious and panicky.
Expressing your fears openly and accepting that you’re scared can be super helpful – not only does it quell the sense of panic and impending doom, but it’s also really helpful for your dentist to know what exactly it is that you’re afraid of and how they might be able to help.
However, it is not unusual for people to be so overwhelmed with fear that they can’t string a sentence together. If this a worry for you, make sure you write down what you fear beforehand. You can either send an email to the dentist beforehand, or take a piece of paper in with you. In the email or on the piece of paper, explain what you are afraid might happen (and if you already know what your dentist could do to help, you may want to add this, too).
If you’re stuck for ideas, you can find some forms and other materials here: Downloads
Keep in mind that you’re not dealing with a life-or-death situation, even though it might feel like one right now – the reality is that you’re free to leave anytime should you not feel comfortable.
I’m so worried about crying and making a complete fool of myself
It’s OK to be bawling your eyes out or to be shaking like a leaf – if a dentist reacts negatively, at least you’ll know they’re not the right one for you. It may help you to put yourself into the dentist’s shoes – how would you react if someone who’s clearly extremely frightened and upset arrived at your practice? One would like to think with compassion and understanding.
Frequently, people are under the impression that they have to please potential dentists by playing the perfect patient. While aggressive behaviour is definitely a no-no, you’re perfectly entitled to have a panic attack, cry, or whatever else takes your fancy:
“Almost every week I have someone crying within my own surgery and it’s the dentist’s job to show some empathy to these patients, be sympathetic towards how they feel.
We have tissues throughout the practice to make sure that you know that this is something that we see and we understand that people have dental fears, they have phobias, they have concerns about having treatments or that they have had a bad experience.
It’s our job to listen and to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
So no one should be concerned about wanting to cry, let it happen. We find that these patients tend to be good at communicating exactly what their concerns are, so we can focus on and deal with whatever concerns they’ve got at the earliest opportunity rather than things bubbling under the surface and them not really discussing what their concern was in the first place.
To be honest dentists have no problem with any patient crying as it is a good method of us finding out exactly what this patient needs.” (Mark Skimming BDS)
Ask a Dentist: “I’m scared that the dentist will laugh at me or think I’m stupid”
“This is most certainly not the case. There are very few people who have no fears whatsoever. While in our rational thoughts we can justify that our fears may not be based on logic, they still exist. This is the same for almost everyone. Your dentist will, without doubt, have some fears of their own. They probably don’t think of themselves as stupid or silly so why would they think that of you simply because your fear is different from their own. Most caring dentists recognise that dental fear arises because of things that have happened in the past and will simply want to help you move beyond this and regain your confidence in the dental profession.” (Fraser Hendrie BDS)
Ask a Dentist: “I am worried that I will lose control and make a fool of myself”
“Have a good chat in advance with your dentist. Agree to take regular breaks in treatment, agree a stop signal that you can use when you need a rest. Don’t be shy to tell the dentist that you need to just take a break or are getting more and more stressed, this way they can help you or alter what they are doing to make it easier for you. As for making a fool of yourself, it is unlikely that anyone in a caring dental office will think of you as foolish, working to break dental fear is a very courageous path to walk and it is only natural to have a few wobbles long the way.” (Fraser Hendrie BDS)
Communication is the key!
Aggressive behaviour among people with dental phobia is (thankfully) extremely uncommon. The more usual pattern is one of over-compliance coupled with a reluctance to communicate your needs – a frustrating experience for both dental phobia sufferers and (willing) dentists.
So – communicate! The communication doesn’t have to be verbal, almost anything will do as long as you don’t simply freeze. If you have a tendency to freeze, make sure you’ve got everything you want to communicate to your dentist written out. And if you’re not sure you can hand this written communication to your dentist, get it to them beforehand (by e-mail, get a confirmation before you go in, or by sending or hand-delivering a letter to the practice – again make sure they’ve seen it.).
Dentists are not mind-readers – and the most common complaint from dentists regarding apprehensive patients is that they won’t let them know what they’re scared of, or when they’re feeling scared.
A major reason why even very caring dentists can find nervous patients stressful is that they won’t let them know what’s going on in their heads. So when there’s something you’re worried or fearful about, no matter how mundane, please let your dentist know about it. Your dentist cannot put your fears at rest unless s/he knows what they are.
Let your dentist know what your fears are, either verbally or in writing, to help ensure that a stress-free time is had by all! Don’t worry about having too many fears – many fears are easily addressed and finding a solution shouldn’t take up much time.
The last word goes to Fraser Hendrie from Craigentinny Dental Practice in Edinburgh (excerpt from the free Dental Fear e-course):
“So many phobic patients that I have helped over the years have told me about their previous visits to the dentist where they felt short of breath, had temperature swings, felt faint and even occasionally passed out altogether. This makes these poor people feel like they are in a blind panic which of course did nothing to help their mental state or reduce their anxiety…
You may be familiar with that feeling as it comes on and think “oh no here we go again…” it literally is like going over the top of a rollercoaster and down the first big drop.
In the dental chair this reaction is totally counter productive but as it is an in-built almost “animal” instinct we can do little to stop it once it starts so you are simply along for the ride. You may be able to reduce its effects but you cant stop it until it has run its course.
So what do you do? The trick is to avoid tipping over the top in the first instance, which means taking your time with a new dentist and slowly (and I do mean slowly) building your confidence one step at a time.
The very worst thing you can do is ask the dentist to do all of your treatment in one session to ‘get it over with.’ You will have the fight or flight response and this will almost certainly confirm all of the negative things that your inner voice has been saying. Do you think this will help your dental fear on the long term or make it worse? Yes you have got it….. it will make it worse. So please if you do nothing else follow the next piece of advice:
Work with your dentist to take small steps over a series of visits. You can then go at a pace that is comfortable and hopefully avoid setting the fear rollercoaster in action. Each time you go to the dentist and have a GOOD experience the positive internal voice that tells you that this is all ok and nothing bad will happen will be reinforced.”