An estimated 20 percent of Americans are so anxious about going to the dentist that they will only go when absolutely necessary. The reasons for this anxiety range from discomfort with personal space invasion to fear of pain. Unfortunately, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more you avoid the dentist, the worse your dental problems get, and the more you need to go!

Because dental health is so important, it’s worth figuring out how to calm anxieties that keep you from getting the care you need. Let’s talk a little more about dental anxiety and how to turn it into dental confidence.

Dentophobia and Dental Anxiety

For people who experience dentophobia, or fear of dental work, going to the dentist triggers the fight-or-flight response and makes them feel as though they are in actual danger. Putting it bluntly, “Asking a dentophobe to get into a dental chair and sit through an exam is akin to pointing a gun at their head.”

Not everyone’s dental anxiety reaches this severity. But 20 percent of Americans are anxious enough that they avoid the dentist, and many more Americans force themselves to go despite the anxiety (just ask your friends–you’ll find this out quickly). Another thing to keep in mind: “Children with parents who have dental anxiety are twice as likely to have it themselves.”

So what are they afraid of?

The foremost reason dentophobes are afraid is lack of control. According to Ellen Rodino, Ph.D., “Fear of dentists stems not so much from the experience of pain as from the lack of control that patients experience in the dentist’s chair.”

But pain is definitely a factor. Having your swollen gums prodded (while you lie about your flossing habits) is never a fun experience. And needles are painful anywhere, but seem even worse when applied to our mouths.

Another reason we’re afraid is our biological programming. “Research into dentophobia has revealed that, as a matter of survival, humans are biologically wired to protect their air passages.” So when the dentist seems to put her entire hand in your mouth, your primal instincts tell you that you may not survive the encounter.

One last reason is embarrassment. Those with dental anxiety have “fear of embarrassment because we work inches away from patients’ faces and are in their personal space. Some people lack self-confidence or are ashamed of how their teeth look, and they’re afraid they’ll be judged or ridiculed,” said Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH, BA.

Do you relate to any of these? Let’s talk about seven ways to overcome this dental anxiety.

How to Overcome Dental Anxiety

  1. Be honest about your fears with yourself, your dentist, and trusted friends. If you’re not honest with yourself about your anxiety, it’s hard to fix it. Ask your dentist to explain what he is doing so you can have a greater sense of control. Bring a trusted friend with you to your appointment so you have support.
  2. Do your research on local dentists. Ask for recommendations from friends, and don’t feel like you have to stick with a dentist you don’t like. “Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t right, regardless of the dentist’s talent, experience or personality. Pay attention to your gut. A positive relationship is crucial for overcoming your fear of the dentist.”
  3. Choose a low-stress appointment time. It’s hard to manage anxiety about the dentist when you’re already stressed about missing work or finding a parking space. Give yourself plenty of time to get there and plenty of time to spend in the appointment.
  4. Distract yourself. Bring some good music or an audiobook to listen to during the appointment.
  5. Try relaxation techniques. “Meditation, prayer, visualizations and controlled breathing techniques can make a big difference in helping you to relax.” Practice these at home so when you go to your appointment, you can whip out your favorite relaxation technique and calm right down.
  6. Ask to take breaks. Take a moment to compose yourself whenever you need it. Consider agreeing on a hand signal with your dentist so she knows when you need a break.
  7. See a psychologist. “If you can’t bring yourself to go to any dentist, you might want to try seeing a psychologist first,’ said Ronald Kleinknecht, Ph.D., co-author of Treating Fearful Dental Patients. A psychologist will help you determine the root cause of your anxiety and help you be calmer and more confident.

Dental health is an important part of your overall health, so it’s worth overcoming your anxieties so going to the dentist is a pleasant experience. By trying one or more of these seven strategies, you’ll be closer to having not only better oral health, but a better life.