Enhancing control by doing things in short bursts

Many people feel overwhelmed by the prospect of dental treatment because they are worried they won’t be able to cope. But often, you may find that you are able to cope if a procedure is broken up into manageable and controllable chunks of time.

“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.”

This is sometimes referred to as “structured time”.

Structured time:

  • means you only have to deal with the situation for a short, finite period of time, and won’t feel overwhelmed.
  • gives you a chance to check out what a piece of equipment is like and what sensations and sounds to expect for a few seconds at a time. It can hugely increase your confidence that you’ll be able to handle the situation.
  • means that even if you feel unable to give a stop signal, you know that you will be able to take a break shortly.
  • is useful if you are worried about panic attacks – panic attacks are usually about anticipatory anxiety (“what might happen if…”). If the time frame is short enough to prevent anticipatory thoughts from happening, then this lessens the chances of experiencing panic.

How can structured time be used to help with dental fear and anxiety?

Structured time can be used in several ways:

  1. If you are unfamiliar with a dental procedure, your dentist can count, or let you count internally, in intervals of seconds (e.g. to the count of 3). Once you are confident that you can handle the situation or the sensations, and you feel more relaxed, the interval can be extended.
  2. It can be used to practice the stop signal (see quote at the beginning of this page), and put you in control of the situation.
  3. It can be used for longer time segments (e. g. your dentist stopping every 5 minutes), to ensure that you can take a break without having to ask for one, and to let your dentist know if everything is going ok for you. It also gives you a chance to just chill, have some water, blow your nose, or just sit up and regain your composure if needed.

Further Reading (Related Pages)

Stop Signals and Taking Things Slowly (from our Loss of Control page)

Tell-Show-Do for Adult Patients

The information on this page has been provided by Dental Fear Central with the help and guidance of Gordon Laurie BDS. Last reviewed on September 26, 2019. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.