Dental Anxiety: Feeling Anxious Over the Dentist, Procedures
Does the thought of going to the dentist or having dental procedures done cause your anxiety to skyrocket? If so, you're not alone. A whopping 50-80 percent of American adults report having some degree of anxiety about going to the dentist, and a study published in 2017 indicated that 19 percent of people showed moderate to severe dental anxiety and almost seven percent indicated a high degree of such anxiety.1
During the study, participants took an assessment called the Modified Dental Anxiety Scale (MDAS). The very fact that this assessment exists indicates that dental anxiety is a problem for many. Because it can be such a problem, let's look at dental anxiety and what to do about it.
The Nature of Dental Anxiety
Anxiety about going to the dentist or having dental procedures done, while extremely common, is different for everyone. It can involve such experiences as:
- Fear of pain
- Worries about expense
- Discomfort with the sight and sound of instruments and equipment
- An unsettled feeling due to confinement and the inability to move freely or talk
- Unease with having others invading personal space, working closely and in the mouth
- Lack of control over what will happen or procedures needed
- Anticipation of future problems that will involve more pain, time, and money
Two days after writing this, I'll be having two root canal procedures done, one on each side of my mouth. Two weeks after the root canals, I'll return to the dentist for crown placements. My own anxiety isn't about fear of pain, the professionals, or the procedures. My anxious thoughts are related to the reason for needing these root canals in the first place.
I have Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune condition involving, in large part, dry eyes and mouth. Because of a lack of any decent amount of saliva, I acquired two large cavities and now need these root canals. My initial anxious thoughts involved catastrophizing the situation and jumping to the conclusion that I'll have numerous, expensive dental procedures to face for the rest of my life. Because I have some other autoimmune and digestive disorders, my mind leapt to general health concerns and imagined negative consequences, expensive and time-consuming.
Regardless of the reason for dental anxiety, the anxiety can cause great misery and have potentially damaging consequences if worry and fear keep you out of the dentist office, either cancelling appointments or simply choosing not to make them in the first place. Oral health, though, is important. There are things you can do, and that I am currently doing, to minimize or deal with dental anxiety so you can attend appointments and have needed procedures without the added agony of anxiety.
How to Deal with Dental Anxiety
Like all types of anxiety, dental anxiety involves our thoughts and feelings about the situation. Ruminating is common in dental anxiety. This act of thinking about our worries and fears over and over contributes to heightened anxiety. It can be helpful to gain a sense of control and shift thoughts away from dental concerns by changing perspective and intentionally paying attention to something else.
Try these strategies to prevent dental anxiety from overwhelming you:
- Focus on your reason for going to the dentist and remind yourself that the ultimate outcome of any procedure will be positive (such as easing long-term pain, maintaining a healthy mouth, or taking steps to keep your heart healthy as oral hygiene can play a role in cardiovascular health2).
- Brainstorm examples of times when dental visits have gone well and/or times when you've faced anxiety and survived, and repeatedly remind yourself of these examples.
- Use visualization to distract yourself during the procedure, closing your eyes and calling to mind a peaceful (and spacious if you don't like the physical restrictions of dental work) scene and be fully engaged in the image, envisioning sights, sounds, smells, sensations on your skin, etc.
- Practice meditation regularly before your appointment to help your mind and body calm down and focus on one thing (such as your visualization) rather than on all of your worries and fears.
- When you catch yourself thinking anxious thoughts, gently and intentionally change your focus to your present moment (this is known as practicing mindfulness).
- Ask a loved one to accompany you, and request permission for them to be in the room with you for support.
Above all, remember that a dental appointment or procedure is temporary. Congratulate yourself for doing something for your health, and celebrate by doing something fun or relaxing when it's over. You're not just celebrating the end of a procedure; you're empowering yourself by acknowledging your triumph over anxiety.
I invite you to tune into the video as I share what I'll be doing about my own dental anxiety.
- White, A.M. et al, "The Prevalence of Dental Anxiety in Dental Practice Settings." Journal of Dental Hygiene, February 2017.
- Salinas, T. J. D.D.S., "Will Taking Care of My Teeth Prevent Heart Disease?" Mayo Clinic, January 2019.
Peterson, T. (2020, July 30). Dental Anxiety: Feeling Anxious Over the Dentist, Procedures , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, September 30 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2020/7/dental-anxiety-feeling-anxious-over-the-dentist-procedures
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
I too have dental anxiety, and I also use visualization to help me get through a procedure. I also rely heavily on distracting myself by rotating my foot in a small circle while the work is being done or touching my fingers one at a time with my thumb to give myself a focus away from my mouth. Thanks for sharing!
Those are great strategies! Physical sensations are powerful in redirecting the mind. I think a lot of people will appreciate these!
This is one of those posts that I just know so many people will come across and think, thank you! So often it's just that moment of being totally reminded (stats to back it up) that you are indeed not alone. Things like dentist-specific anxiety make so much sense and truly are so common. I loved your additional tips for things like visualization and meditation. I've also found if the sound of the tools is particularly triggering that most dentists have no problem with their patients bringing headphones and listening to music during their appointment.
Thank you for your thoughts and added insights! When I used my visualization, I included sounds. I could still hear the tools, but the sound wasn't bothersome because I kept turning my attention to the sounds in my mind. Yet having headphones and music is a great idea. I'm glad you thought to add this!
Thank you so much for the information on this page. Anxiety has been difficult for me for so many reasons and it is always helpful to read ways in which people are out there supporting others like me. There is a great website called wewillgetthroughthis.org if anyone is looking for other mental health resources and support. Thank you all again for your knowledge and help.