Relaxation Techniques

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Written by the Dental Fear Central Web Team
Last updated on October 25, 2022
A hammock on a beach, symbolising relaxation

On this page, you can find relaxation techniques which can help relieve dental anxiety. These include:

There is also a discussion of the limitations of relaxation for overcoming dental fears.


There are many breathing techniques that can help with anxiety. One thing they all have in common is belly breathing – getting good deep breaths. Breathing deeply and slowly has a relaxing and calming effect.

The aim is to breathe into your lower belly. To do this, inhale slowly through your nose by pushing your stomach out, like so:

Belly breathing has many positive effects, that’s why it’s so popular on smartwatches and in app stores. It can almost instantly calm down the nervous system – and a calm body translates into a calm(er) mind!

If you practice it regularly, it will be much easier to do in difficult situations (such as in the runup to a dental visit…). Regular practice also trains the muscles of the breathing mechanism, which is believed to have a positive effect on general health.

How to Practice Controlled Breathing: Box Breathing

Box breathing (also known as square breathing) works like this:

Belly Breathing diagram
  1. Visualise a square. You’re starting in the bottom left corner.
  2. Breathe in through your nose while counting to 4 slowly, using the belly breathing technique described earlier.
  3. Hold your breath while counting slowly to 4.
  4. Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
  5. Keep your lungs empty while counting slowly to 4.
  6. Repeat this at least three times.

You can use a count of 3 or 5 instead if 4 doesn’t suit you. Feel free to experiment!

And here’s a video:

N.B. Everybody has different size lungs and counts at different rates. If, for some reason, this technique doesn’t work for you, try finding your own rhythm.

For example, breathe in to a count of 4 and breathe out to a count of 6, as shown here by dentist and DFC advisory board member Niall Neeson:

Or you might find a 5 seconds in – 5 seconds out rhythm works for you:

I just breathe deeply. In for 5 seconds and then out for 5. I relax all the muscles in the body and associate the sounds with sounds of nature. So the sucker thingy I’ll associate with the wind, and so on. – from our message board

You can also download deep breathing apps on the App Store or Google Play.

If you have an Apple Watch, you can use the built-in Breathe app to practice controlled breathing, or for Android Wear use apps like BreatheWell.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation works by isolating one muscle group, making the muscles go tense for 8-10 seconds and then letting the muscle relax and the tension go. This technique doesn’t work so well in the dental context, because it takes quite a long time until you’ve gone through all the different muscle groups!

However, it can be really helpful to master this technique at home, because it helps you become aware of tense muscles and you may then be able to use this knowledge to detect and relax tense areas of your body.

When we are anxious or when we anticipate pain, we tense our muscles (with many people literally “gripping the chair”!). Making an active effort to consciously relax your muscles can really help. Concentrate on finding areas of tension in your body and relaxing them, one after the other.

Common areas of tension when in the dental chair may include your hands (you may want to place them loosely on your belly – that way, you can check that you’re breathing through your belly at the same time), the shoulders, the back, or indeed your whole body.

You can learn and practice progressive muscle relaxation using this YouTube audio:

Guided imagery, self-hypnosis and relaxation music

Visualisation is a great way of reducing stress… it helps you to relax!!

All joking aside, guided imagery and self-hypnosis can be useful both during dental visits and in the run-up to your visit. Guided imagery brings you to a relaxing place, such as a beach, a garden or a meadow, evokes the sights, sounds, smells and sensations you may experience in this place, and creates a safe and secure environment in your mind.

Nowadays, there are lots of apps available. Guided imagery/meditation/self-hypnosis apps are a very personal thing as their effectiveness is very much dependent on whether you like the speaker’s voice or the background music. It is best to “try before you buy” if possible. You may also prefer relaxation tracks which contain music only, for example Zen, Spa, Yoga or Meditation music.

Relaxation – Benefits and Limitations

Relaxation techniques can be very useful when used alongside other techniques mentioned in the Help section. They’re not so good when you try to use them as the only means of trying to deal with your fears. Here’s why:

I find that deep-breathing exercises and “self-hypnosis” types of relaxation exercises can and do work. The trouble with them is that they usually work only if you practice them pretty much daily. Add to this the possibility of hyperventilating if the breathing exercises are done incorrectly and the practicality of this approach seems limited. I won’t say don’t try meditating in the examining room, but it may not be the best place to start practising. The exception to this would be a course of relaxation training that was actually undertaken in a dental suite under the direction of a behaviour therapist probably when no examination, cleaning or intervention was scheduled.

That said, systematic desensitization with “imagined” stimuli (memories of trips to the dentist) never really helped me. It has been informative, kind and competent dentists who have helped me re-learn (literally) how to be a dental patient – through repeated exposure to good, collaborative care. – John Harvey, “A Psychologist and Dental Phobic Speaks…”, Journal of the Canadian Dental Association, January 2005

Many people find that relaxation does help (as part of a package which includes a kind and competent dentist), but there’s no need to beat yourself up over it if it doesn’t do much for you. Given how easy it is to learn basic breathing techniques, it’s always worth giving it a try though, and may come in handy in other situations!

Do you find relaxation techniques useful? Share your tips and your opinions on our support forum!

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