Time to Overcome Your Dental Phobia

November 24, 2015

dental phobiaScared to visit the dentist? You are certainly not alone.

According to the Dental Fears Research Clinic, between five and eight percent of Americans avoid visiting the dentist because they are scared. Another 20 percent say they go to the dentist only when they have to because of their fears. And most parents will tell you their children went through a phase where they were terrified of getting into the chair — even if they’ve since outgrown it.

We get it. At AZ Family Dental, we deal with dental phobia every day, and we know it’s a legitimate concern. While our goal is always to make you as comfortable as possible and to give every patient a great experience, we understand that dental phobia is real and can be truly scary.

That’s why we’ve put together this primer on overcoming dental phobia. We’ll discuss:

  • Why people fear the dentist
  • How to deal with a fear of the dentist
  • Tips to overcome a fear of dentists
  • Ways to make your next visit more pleasant
  • Suggestions on how to cure your child’s dental phobia

We’ll start by examining why people are scared of the dentist.

Why People Fear Dentists

Trust us, if you bumped into Dr. Matt Parker in nearby Glendale, AZ, or Peoria, AZ, you wouldn’t be scared for a moment — They’re nice, friendly people. But the moment those scrubs go on and their pick sets come out, they suddenly become worrisome to those with dental phobia.

Why are people scared of dentists? There can be a lot of reasons. Here are the five most common we’ve seen at our office.

  1. A Bad Dental Experience as a Child
    Many people with dental phobia have held these fears since they were children, dating back to an unpleasant episode they had with a dentist in the past. Perhaps they had a tooth filled and the Novocain hadn’t quite kicked in before the dentist started drilling, leading to a very painful few moments. Or maybe a dental hygienist accidentally scraped a gum with their pick while cleaning teeth, hurting the person’s gums. It’s easy to see why someone would be loath to return to the dentist after an experience like this. They have a fear that those traumatic events will happen again. No one likes to get hurt, and many people choose to avoid having to go to the dentist altogether rather than to face those fears.
  2. Pre-Existing Anxiety Disorder
    For many people, an anxiety disorder that’s not even dental related may be causing their dental phobia. They may feel anxious about anything unknown, and not knowing what to expect at the dentist’s office — such as whether they will have cavities or need fluoride — can ramp up those feelings of nervousness.
  3. Lack of Control
    Some people feel vulnerable when they are sitting in the dentist chair. They don’t like lying back and not being able to see what is going on around them. This is especially true of those who may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, as they worry about the unknown when they do not have complete control of a situation.
  4. Bad Teeth
    Sadly, a dental phobia can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who are scared of the dentist may be fearful of going because they worry they have cavities that will need to be drilled. But if they do not go to the dentist and get their teeth cleaned, the chances of them having a cavity or other dental complication increases. This fear ensures that when an individual finally makes it to the dentist, they will need serious treatment, which may upset them and cause them to avoid the dentist again in the future.
  5. Biological Mechanisms
    Here’s a little-known fact uncovered by a Norwegian researcher: Humans have a deep desire to protect their open air passages, such as mouths and noses. The desire is an evolutionary instinct: Our ancestors who protected their mouths and noses were more likely to remain alive. While we no longer face threats from the beasts that may have hunted our ancestors down, we still maintain that desire to protect our mouths and noses.

That means our natural instinct is to resist opening our mouths and becoming vulnerable to another person. Instead, we are biologically built to guard these areas and keep them private.

Perhaps you nodded your head as you read those examples. Even if you don’t have a paralyzing fear of dentists, you may still get nervous when you go for a cleaning or take your seat in the chair.

It’s time to tackle the problem. Start with these steps:

  • Acknowledge the issue. You may have been avoiding the dentist for years, or you may have only recently begun to feel uncomfortable. No matter how long you have suffered from dental phobia, you need to admit to yourself that you are scared to visit the dentist.
  • Figure out why. It could be one of the reasons listed above, or it could be something more or less complex. You can’t confront your fear until you figure out what’s causing it.
  • Ask yourself: Do I need help? If you feel nervous and anxious about going to the dentist, you can probably overcome that on your own, with the tips below. But if your phobia is being caused by a deeper issue, such as PTSD, then you may need professional assistance.
  • Commit to overcoming your fear of dentists. It’s time to take action. You can’t achieve anything until you have a plan, and we have a lot of ideas to help you.

Congratulations: You’re ready to tackle the problem head-on. Here are ways you can make visiting the dentist more comfortable and perhaps even pleasant, easing the fears you have battled in the past.

Meet Your Dentist Before Getting Treated

It may be you only know your dentist as the person behind the mask who peeks at your teeth every six months. If you get to know the person behind the mask a bit, your mind may be put at ease. This could be as simple as setting up a time to come in and talk for 10 minutes, asking any questions you might have about the practice or the policies.

Be Upfront About Your Dental Phobia

At AZ Family Dental, we know people can be scared of coming to the dentist, and we want to help. We won’t judge you or dismiss your fears. We’ll work with you to help you feel more relaxed. This may include:

  • Talking to you during a cleaning
  • Letting you see the dental instruments before they are used — you may even want to touch or hold them to help them feel familiar
  • Explaining everything that will happen during your appointment before starting

When the hygienist or dentist knows your fears, they can be sure to take those fears into consideration during the appointment.

Bring a Family Member or Friend With You

Most adults go to dentist appointments alone. However, bringing along a friend or family member who understands your fears can be reassuring. They can help you stay calm during your appointment.

You will need to clear this with your dentist ahead of time: At some practices the dental work area is so small your companion may have to remain in the waiting room. But just knowing they are nearby may provide the comfort you need.

Ask About Modifications

Not every dental procedure must be the same for each person. Say you have a sensitive gag reflex that makes you dread getting X-rays. Talk to your dentist about your concerns. Perhaps you can get panoramic X-rays instead, which are less likely to make you gag.

Consider Changing Dentists

If you don’t feel comfortable with your dentist, they may not be the right fit for you. It’s okay to look somewhere else to find a place where you do feel at home. For example, perhaps your dentist jokes around a lot, and you find this increases your anxiety about a procedure. If this humorous approach doesn’t mesh with what you need, ask people you know to recommend a new dentist who isn’t so jokey.

Use Noise-Canceling Headphones

Many people’s dental anxiety ratchets up a few notches as soon as they hear the drill. By using noise-canceling headphones, you can block out the often loud machinery in the office, helping you to relax while the dentist does their work.

Talk About Your Pain Management Options

If you’re trying to overcome a fear of dentists, you may simply be scared of feeling pain during your visit. Chat with your dentist and hygienist about your fears so they understand where your anxiety is coming from. Solutions to this issue might include:

  • Using a topical anesthetic to numb the area where an injection will be made
  • Experimenting with new techniques, such as delivering anesthetic via an electronic method
  • Trying laser drills instead of traditional ones

While not every office will offer such options, by opening a dialogue with your dentist about alternatives to avoid pain, you will feel more at ease with whatever solution you find.

Stay Halfway up in the Chair

If you worry about the discomfort or vulnerability of going all the way back in the dentist’s chair, this problem can be addressed in two main ways. First, you could try using pillows under the areas where you feel aches when going back in the chair. Second, the dentist may make an accommodation for you by putting the chair only halfway back during the checkup.

Ways to Make Your Next Visit More Pleasant

You’ve made it to the dentist once: The trip was hard but you overcame your dental phobia. Here are some ways you can make the subsequent visits less scary.

Bring Earbuds

Music can help relax you and allow you to zone out while your teeth are being cleaned. Use your phone or iPod to listen to your favorite tunes while the dentist works.


Meditation calms your nerves by slowing your heart rate and forcing you to get into a rhythmic breathing. Try practicing at home for a few weeks before your appointment, so you know how to Zen out when needed.

Use a Nasal Strip

If you breathe through your mouth, you may have difficulty breathing during a dental appointment because you are not used to taking in air through your nose. By using a nasal strip across your nose, you open up the passages and get more air in. There’s a placebo effect, too — even if the strip doesn’t actually help your breathing, you’ll feel better having it there.

Distract Yourself

Use whatever means necessary to keep your mind off of what’s being done in your mouth, such as:

  • Count to one thousand by threes.
  • Replay a movie in your head.
  • Try to remember the speech you memorized for your ninth grade Model United Nations competition.
  • Silently recite the alphabet backwards.

Agree on a Signal

Before the drill comes out or the cleaning begins, talk to your dentist or hygienist about a nonverbal signal you can give if you become panicked or uncomfortable. When they see this signal, they can stop and give you a few moments to recover before continuing.

By using these tips and planning ahead for your visit, you can alleviate many of the dentist-related fears that may have been holding you back from getting regular dental care. Still, adults aren’t the only ones who get scared of dental visits.

How to Help Your Child Get Over Dental Phobia

Children are even more likely than adults to be wary of the dentist: Thirty percent of kids say they are scared to visit the dentist.

You can help your child deal with a fear of the dentist by using these strategies.

Don’t Pass on Your Fears to Your Kids

The above survey found that kids whose parents are afraid of the dentist are much more likely to be scared of visiting the dentist than kids of parents who are not afraid of the dentist. While dental phobia isn’t easy to deal with, try not to expose your kids to your fears. Let them make up their own minds about the dentist.

Play Dentist at Home

Get your child ready for a dentist visit by trying a game of make-believe: Have your child play the patient while you play the dentist. Pretend to clean their teeth and check for cavities, and answer any questions they might have about the process.

Talk About Their Fears

Show your child that their fear of the dentist is nothing to be ashamed about. Discuss their concerns, and try to alleviate them if you can. Most importantly, listen. Kids appreciate being treated respectfully and allowed to talk. Resist the urge to tell them their fears are silly or that they shouldn’t worry. Be a good listener, and you’ll be amazed at how the issue begins to resolve itself.

Begin Visiting the Dentist While They’re Young

Fear of the dentist can be a learned behavior. If your child is old enough to talk to other kids at school about the dentist, they may notice others are scared and become fearful themselves. Don’t allow that to happen. Start bringing your child to the dentist as soon as they get their baby teeth — they’ll become comfortable with cleaning and familiar with your dentist.

Make a Dental Appointment Today

Ready to conquer your or your child’s fear of dentists? Make an appointment at our office in the Phoenix, AZ, area. We can talk to you about your dentist phobia and help you overcome your fears in any way we can.

Would you like to share?