Rest Breaks and Counting

Written by the Dental Fear Central Web Team and reviewed by Gordon Laurie BDS
Last updated on January 17, 2021

Do you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of dental treatment because you feel that won’t be able to cope? Taking frequent breaks or doing things in short bursts can work wonders!

rest breaks

Rest Breaks

It’s not uncommon for people to feel obliged to continue with a procedure until they can no longer bear it, at which stage the fight or flight reaction has kicked in. This can make it harder or even impossible to continue.

To nip this problem in the bud, either you or your dentist can initiate breaks during a procedure.

Jason Armfield and Lisa Heaton 1 give the following tips:

1. Patient-initiated rest breaks

At the start of appointments, your dentist may tell you to let them know if you’d like to take a break at any time in the procedure. This is usually done by using an agreed stop signal. Being able to pause the procedure at any time gives a sense of control.

2. Dentist-initiated rest breaks

Dentist-initiated rest breaks are extremely helpful. Many (if not most?) people with dental fears find it difficult to be assertive in the dental situation. You may also have a tendency to ‘freeze’ in the dental chair, or you may be tempted to ‘push through’ appointments to get it over and done with. Some people won’t ask for a rest break for fear of appearing to be a ‘difficult’ patient – they don’t want to be a bother or a nuisance.

For all these reasons, it’s great when dentists plan the rest breaks in advance. An example is letting you know they will work for five minutes, and then take a break. This increases the sense of predictability and control.

3. Pauses in treatment

Your dentist can use natural pauses in treatment (for example, when switching to a different piece of equipment) to encourage you to take a break, close your mouth, and rest a little.

4. Unscheduled breaks

Of course, dentists should also take a break if they notice their patient become anxious or restless.

Counting

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.

Why counting works

  • You only have to deal with the situation for a short, finite period of time, and won’t feel overwhelmed.
  • You can check out what a piece of equipment is like and what the sensations and sounds are, for a few seconds at a time. This can hugely increase your confidence that you’ll be able to handle the situation.
  • Even if you feel unable to give a stop signal, you know that you can take a break shortly.
  • Counting is useful if you worry about having a panic attack. Panic attacks are usually about anticipatory anxiety (“what might happen if…”). If the time frame is short enough to prevent anticipatory thoughts, then this lessens the chances of panicking.

I liked the way he described what each thing would sound like and feel like so I knew what to expect. He worked in bursts of 5 then 10 seconds and counted out loud for me so I knew when was going to stop. That helped me a lot. – from our message boards

How can you use this to help with dental fear and anxiety?

Counting and structured time can be used in several ways:

  1. Your dentist can count, or let you count internally, in intervals of seconds (e.g. to the count of 3). This can be very useful if you’re facing an unfamiliar dental procedure. Once you’re confident that you can handle things, the interval can be extended.
  2. You can use it to practice the stop signal and put you in control of the situation (see above).
  3. It can be also be used for longer time segments. For example, your dentist can stop every 5 minutes. That way, you can take a break without having to ask for one, and let your dentist know if everything is going ok for you. Also, it gives you a chance just to chill, have some water, blow your nose, or sit up and regain your composure if needed.

Don’t forget to visit our dental phobia support forum. Everyone is welcome!

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  1. Armfield, JM, Heaton LJ (2013). Management of fear and anxiety in the dental clinic: a review. Australian Dental Journal 2013; 58: 390-407.[]