What can I do if I’m afraid of the dentist but need to go?
Are you terrified of the dentist? If so, you’re not unusual. The UK’s Adult Dental Health Survey (2009) found that 12% of adults had extreme dental anxiety. And over a third (36%) had moderate dental anxiety.
If you suffer with dental phobia, you may avoid dentists altogether. Many people who join our forum haven’t seen a dentist in many decades.
Whether your fear is extreme and you suffer from actual dentophobia, or you have specific dental fears or a feeling of anxiety that makes dental visits difficult or impossible, help is at hand!
If you already have a dentist you’re happy with, you can jump straight to our tips for coping with dental treatment!
Table of Contents
- Understanding your fears
- Find a caring dentist
- Tips for coping with dental treatment
- Additional tips for survivors of trauma
- How to deal with anxiety before an appointment
- Coping with difficulties along the way
Part 1: Understanding your fears
1. Know that a fear of the dentist is normal
Our mouth is one of the most intimate and sensitive parts of the body. A visit to the dentist can make us feel very vulnerable. It may feel as if the dentist has all the knowledge, we can’t really move or speak, and we lose control over what is happening to us.
And this is just for the average person.
Anxiety and avoidance are natural, rational and purposeful reactions.
The purpose of anxiety is to prevent us from doing things that may harm us (or have harmed us in the past). So right now your anxiety is doing exactly that – keeping you safe and out of harm’s way.
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, it’s very hard to get by without any professional dental care – which may be why you have arrived here in the first place.
2. What caused your fear of the dentist?
There are many things which can cause people to develop an extreme fear of the dentist, for example:
Bad experiences at the dentist, especially if the dentist was acting in an uncaring and cold manner. Common examples include pain during treatment, painful injections, complications from a procedure, unnecessary treatment, and things being done to you without your consent. Or a dentist may have made a hurtful remark about your teeth or oral hygiene.
If you were standing on Bondi Beach and you see a dark shape moving around in the water, do you have a shark phobia if you never want to go into the water? No. If you’re at your local swimming pool and you see a dark shape in the water and you decide not to get in, that’s a phobia. But for somebody who has had difficult and bad experiences at the dentist, their reality has been on Bondi Beach. Wanting to stay away from that situation is entirely rational.
Now the difference, and the crucial part, is making sure that when you do go to a dentist, you see a dentist who is as safe as the swimming pool. The phobia has protected you from all dentists when actually it’s just the dentists that are not nice to you that you need to avoid. – dentist Mike Gow (in an interview with Dental Fear Central)
Embarrassment is also extremely common. Especially if dental phobia has caused you to avoid dentists for a very long time, you may feel that the state of your teeth or mouth is so horrific that showing the damage to a dentist is out of the question. Or you may feel embarrassed about crying, panicking, or making a fool of yourself in front of the dentist or their assistant.
Other traumatic experiences
You may have a history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse. Or perhaps you have a fear of medical settings and doctors more generally. Such fears are often triggered by bad (first or second hand) experiences with doctors or hospitals. The dental environment has many parallels with these situations and can act as a trigger for memories to flood back.
Or else you, or someone close to you, may have had a bad reaction to a medication. And as a result, you may be worried about something bad happening to you. Sometimes, just reading about this possibility on the internet can trigger intense anxiety.
Not surprisingly, past experiences of painful injections (dental or otherwise) can make people fearful of needles. Others develop a needle phobia after they were held down against their will by doctors or nurses. Some have even reported being threatened with needles by parents or caregivers. Or perhaps it’s more just the thought of needles and being pricked that terrifies you. Some people tend to faint when they see a needle.
People may pick up on parents’ fears about going to the dentist, or hear about someone else’s bad experience. Also, the negative portrayal of dentists in the media or in movies can cause dental anxiety.
While it can sometimes be helpful to know the reasons for your fear, don’t worry if you can’t pinpoint them. Perhaps you’ve always been nervous at the dentist but you don’t know why? If so, our Dental Anxiety – Unspecified page has some useful tips!
Many people find it really helpful to find out how others tackled their fear of the dentist, and what happened when they finally managed to visit a dentist: Personal Stories of Overcoming Dental Phobia
3. Make a list of what scares you about the dentist
You may have very specific dental fears such as a fear of injections, the sound of the drill, having a panic attack while in the chair and so on. Or maybe it’s not so much dental procedures that scare you, but the dentist and their behaviour.
Why not have a look at the Common Fears section to see if any of your fears are listed?
Sometimes it can be hard to figure out what exactly it is you are afraid of. If so, you may find these forms helpful:
4. Think about what might help you
This step is not essential – a dentist with a special interest in helping anxious patients will be able to guide you through this process. But you may like to have a think about your likes and dislikes in advance:
We also have lots of information on dental fears. Each fear has its own web page, and you can read up on common fears and get tips for dealing with each of them.
And the What can help section provides lots of info on new technologies, psychology-based tips, and medications.
5. You’re in control!
It can sometimes feel as if the dentist is an authority figure who wields all the power.
Nothing could be further from the truth. You’re paying for a service, and you’re employing them to be your dentist! They would be out of business if it wasn’t for their customers. As with any business, you are free to take your custom elsewhere if you’re not happy with the service you receive.
While not all dentists enjoy helping nervous patients, those who do view it as a privilege when someone who has a huge fear of dentists puts their trust in them. And many dentists feel that helping people overcome their fears makes their job worthwhile and satisfying.
So much of it is about having the right dentist, one who will stop when you tell them to stop and who you trust 100%. I was told to remember I am paying for a service and if I am not happy to say so. I should “interview” the dentists until I find someone I am comfortable with and who understood my fears. – from our message boards
Part 2: Find a caring dentist
You wouldn’t choose a plumber without looking at their reviews or asking for recommendations, so you should do the same with any dentist.
Having a dentist who is kind, caring, and gentle is absolutely central to overcoming a fear of the dentist.
Overcoming dental phobia is not about stopping to be afraid of the dentist, but about stopping to be afraid of YOUR dentist.
1. Make a list of potential candidates
- Ask friends or family for recommendations.
- Read Google and Facebook reviews for dentists in your area.
- Do a Google search for dentists in your area, using search terms like “dentist for nervous patients” and the name of your town
- Look at local dentists’ websites and see if any of them have a special interest in helping anxious patients, and what sort of help they offer. Read their bios.
- Are they enthusiastic about dentistry? Do they offer what you want? You can find out how to spot a good dentist here: How to find a high-quality dentist
- Get help with finding a phobic-friendly dentist on our forum.
2. Get in touch with dentists, and let them know how scared you are
Contact them by email or Facebook. Dentists who are interested in helping people overcome their fears may also be happy to talk on the phone, engage in an email exchange, or have a quick informal chat in the dental practice. Or they might even agree to meet you in a nearby place if you’re too scared to set foot inside a dental practice.
You can find a Dental Fears Questionnaire which you can give to dentists here:
If you’re lost for words, use this sample email to dentists to get started.
You can attach the Dental Fears Questionnaire to your email if you like. That way, you won’t forget to say anything important when you first meet the dentist. It also comes in handy if you’re tongue-tied due to nerves.
3. Visit the practice
This is not essential if it feels too daunting. But you may want to visit the practice before scheduling an appointment. If you haven’t been in touch with them yet, you can go on the pretext of looking for some information about the practice. Or you may want to explain that you are very nervous. Ask if any of the dentists are particularly good at helping people who are afraid of the dentist.
Note how you are treated by the reception staff – are they warm, friendly and helpful? If you feel up to it, ask if you can be shown around the practice. Or if you like, ask if you can drop in sometime for a brief informal chat with the dentist of your choice.
The environment is important – it should be clean and tidy but welcoming. Any equipment should look modern.
4. Schedule an appointment
Do you like what you’ve seen and heard so far? Then why not schedule an appointment just for a chat. Some people find it easier to do this in writing, via email. Or you can practice making the phone call when you are sure that no-one will answer the phone. Try calling late at night or on weekends. Just dialling the number can be hard, so making a few “practice” calls can help with doing it for real.
Alternatively, you can ask a friend or partner to schedule the appointment for you.
5. Top tips for the first visit
- Just have a chat, away from the chair.
- Be honest about how scared you are. Dentists are not mindreaders, and they won’t be able to help if they don’t know.
- If you haven’t already done so, share your fears (for example by using this form or a list you write yourself, or by telling your dentist about them).
- The first visit is like a job interview – you’re sussing out your potential dentist. Are you and your dentist a good fit? Do you like them?
- Arrange that the first examination is not in-depth, just a quick look. This helps you to get over the “my teeth are disgusting and the worst the dentist has ever seen” syndrome.
6. How did it go?
If it went well, you’ll probably know by now! If you’re unsure, ask yourself the following questions:
- Did the dentist make me feel comfortable?
- Did I feel genuinely cared for?
- Were they non-judgmental and keen to help me?
- Did I feel respected?
- Did it feel like an equal partnership?
If the answer to any of these is “no”, go back to your list of potential candidates. There’s no one dentist who suits everyone (even if they get rave reviews from other nervous patients). So if you don’t hit it off with the first person you meet, try again!
7. What next?
Once you have found a dentist you like, you can work out the next steps together. If you’re not in pain, you may want to start with an easier procedure such as a teeth cleaning. Depending on your needs, you can then work your way up to more complex stuff.
On the other hand, you may have an important event such as a wedding coming up. Or perhaps you need some major work done. A sedative may allow you to get a lot of work done in one go.
There are three main types of sedation:
- Oral sedation – taking an anti-anxiety sedative in a drink, or in pill form
- Inhalation sedation – breathing in a mixture of oxygen and nitrous oxide, which gives a pleasant, relaxed feeling
- IV sedation – a sedative medicine is given through a vein in the arm or hand. The medicine makes you feel very deeply relaxed. You won’t remember much about your treatment afterwards
If you have your heart set on sedation dentistry, make sure that the dentists on your shortlist offer it!
And one last tip. Perhaps the most useful question to ask when it comes to making decisions about treatment is this:
If it was your tooth (or your mouth), what would you do?
Part 3: Tips for coping with dental treatment
Here are some tried-and-tested tips from our readers and forum members. Feel free to pick and mix! And don’t be afraid to ask for any of these things – a good dentist will want to help you as much as possible.
Preparing for your visit
- Time of day: The first appointment of the day can be a good choice if you want less time to dwell on it. If you’re not a morning person, either the slot right after the lunch break (so you don’t have a long wait) or the last appointment of the day (so you don’t feel you’re holding up the next patient) can be good choices. Also, you could also ask the dentist if they have a favourite time of day for seeing their anxious patients.
- 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.
- Clothes: Wear an outfit you feel confident and comfortable in.
- Bring a comforting object, for example, a stuffed toy, stress ball or fidget widget. Or you may want to bring or wear a lucky charm.
- Bring a blanket, or a weighted blanket, to help you feel safe and protected.
- Aromatherapy: Put an essential oil such as lavender oil around your nose while in the waiting room.
- Bring dark sunglasses if you hate bright lights. Although you’ll be given safety glasses, they may not be dark enough for your liking.
- Make a playlist: If you’re planning on listening to your own music, make a playlist of songs that you feel will help.
During your visit
- Stop signal: Rule #1: Always agree on a stop signal, such as raising your left hand. Then, test your dentist by trying it out! Having a coping signal (for example, a thumbs up) is also helpful.
- If you don’t feel able to give a stop signal, let your dentist know beforehand. Then you can practice giving the stop signal together. Or you can work out an alternative way, such as putting your hand around your nurse’s wrist very lightly and if you need your dentist to stop, just squeeze their wrist. They can then let your dentist know to stop. Or else, you may like to try a dog clicker.
- Counting: Start off with doing treatment in short bursts of 10 seconds at a time, until you know you’re comfortable and that there’s nothing to fear.
- Take a break: Agree with your dentist on taking breaks during treatment. Natural pauses in the flow of procedures can be used to relax and rest a little. Or if you’re concerned about “freezing” and not being able to give a stop signal, your dentist can approach the treatment in manageable chunks of time (say, a break every 5 minutes).
- Explanations and running commentaries: 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. Of course, not everyone wants to know exactly what is happening, so let your dentist know your preference!
- Touch, see and hear: You may find it helpful to see what tools and materials are going to be used, what they sound like and what they feel like: Tell-Show-Do – It’s not just for children!
- Listen to music or watch TV: You may enjoy the radio playing in the background, your dentist offering you a choice of music, or bringing your earphones to listen to music or podcasts on your mobile phone. Some dental practices even have a TV on the ceiling.
- 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. Make a conscious effort to relax all the muscles in your body.
- Imagine being in a relaxing place, for example, in a beautiful garden or on a beach.
- Eyes closed or open: You may find dental treatment easier with your eyes closed, or you may prefer to keep your eyes open. Why not try both and see which you prefer?
- Numbing gel: Talk to your dentist about using numbing gel on your gums if you have a fear of needles.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, just have an injection without any treatment. If possible, start with a simple procedure such as a cleaning, and work up to more complex treatments.
- Medication: If you are interested in using sedation, choose a dentist who offers this, and ask them about it.
After your visit
- Celebrate: Have a treat lined up as a reward – a bunch of flowers, a parcel that will be waiting, a special drink, cake for after dinner, a meal out, whatever!
Part 4: Additional tips for survivors of trauma
For victims of abuse and trauma, the dental environment can be full of triggers because of the parallels it has with particular kinds of abuse. More and more dentists are aware of these issues, but it can be difficult to figure out beforehand if a dental practice provides trauma-informed care.
You can find lots of information and resources on our website: Tips for Abuse Survivors and Their Dentists
You may also wonder how much you can disclose to your (potential) dentist. Here’s a dentist’s take on this topic: How much should I tell my new dentist?
In addition to the tips above, here are some other things you can request if you feel they would help:
- Leave the door open if possible.
- Have a dental nurse present at all times.
- Ask your permission before touching you or starting a new procedure.
- Put the dental chair in a more upright position wherever possible. You can read more about chair position on our Lack of Control page.
- Check in frequently with you to make sure you’re OK.
Part 5: How to deal with anxiety before an appointment
It’s ok to be scared and to worry and this is part of the journey of coping with dental anxiety. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to worry. You may want to do things to pamper or distract yourself in the run-up to the appointment, for example:
- go shopping
- watch your favourite TV shows
- listen to music
- do a task which doesn’t require too much concentration, such as spring cleaning or playing a monotonous game
- have a hot bath
- go to the gym
- go for a long walk
- try out a new recipe.
Part 6: Coping with difficulties along the way
You will find lots of success stories on our forum, and most people feel a huge weight lifted off their shoulders once they have found the right dentist.
Having said that, overcoming a fear of the dentist isn’t always a straightforward process. There can be setbacks and bumps along the way. We have dedicated a web page to this difficult topic, where you can find more information: When things don’t go to plan.
Even if you feel on top of the world just after an appointment, it is not uncommon for the fear to return – especially if there is a long gap between appointments.
Here are some tips:
- Always schedule your next appointment before you leave: That way, it’s much easier to stay in the routine of regular visits. We all know how hard it is to pick up the phone to make that call!
- Reward yourself: Have a little (or a big!) celebration after an appointment that went well, or treat yourself to something nice.
- Replay positive memories from your visit in your mind: Strengthening positive memories can help with overriding negative ones – it’s like exercising a muscle.
- Write a journal: Keep a journal, either in a diary or on our forum. You can then read back over it to remind yourself of things that went well.
And most of all:
- Feel proud of yourself – facing your greatest fear and trying to overcome dental phobia is an incredibly courageous thing to do!