A Guide to Dealing with Your Fear of the Dentist


Being afraid of the dentist has almost been ingrained into our minds through television and pop culture, but is there really anything to be afraid of?

Many people who have been to the dentist and have experienced getting their teeth drilled for the first time would probably say, yes. Although, there really isn’t anything to be afraid unless you’ve had a bad experience at the dentist in the past.

What is Dental Phobia?

Having a phobia of the dentist can cause you to not want to go due to the fear you experience when thinking about it, which can cause your oral health to decline.

This is due to dental phobia, which is when a strong feeling of fear occurs if someone thinks or is reminded of going to the dentist. The fear is so strong that it can end up making you sick or cause a panic attack by just hearing about the dentist. In this situation the flight-or-fight response is triggered. This occurs when you are either thinking about being in a dangerous situation or you’re in one. In a flight-or-fight situation you either stay and face the danger (the fight response) or run away (flight response).

When someone has dental fear/phobia for example and is afraid of getting their teeth drilled they will most likely try to avoid it. This is because in the past they may have had a painful experience where the Novocain didn’t last or didn’t numb them properly and they felt pain from the drill.

Levels of Fear

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety when going to the dentist you may have a dental phobia. Don’t worry many people have experienced being scared of going to the dentist especially when it’s their first visit. Here are the three different levels of dental fear classified as dental anxiety, fear and phobia.

Dental anxiety is, “a reaction to an unknown danger,” (Dental Fear Central, 1). Anxiety is very common thing to have in the U.S, but it is a natural response to an unknown outcome. Although, it is considered an anxiety disorder when you panic or feel anxious about something that you know is irrational. If you are avoiding going to dinner with friends because you are afraid that something bad will happen you would be classified as having an anxiety disorder.

Dental Fear is “a reaction to a known danger, (Dental Fear Central, 1). This is when you have already been to the dentist and know what’s going to happen. It causes fear to arise and creates the flight-or-fight response. This originates from the cave man days which originally would alert us to the flight-or-fight response to a predator.

Dental Phobia is a stronger response to being in danger than dental fear, but is also a reaction to a known danger.

Causes of Dental Fear

The fear of going to the dentist can be caused by many different things such as hearing stories of other people’s bad experiences or having your own bad experience. Whatever the reason may be if you feel anxiety every time you go to the dentist you probably have a dental fear. Before you try to overcome your fear you should figure out what could of caused it.

Common causes of dental fear according to Dental Fear Central are, “Bad experiences a history of abuse, an uncaring dentist, humiliation, vicarious learning , preparedness and post-traumatic stress disorder,” (Dental Fear Center, 1). All of these are possible causes that could have produced your fear of the dentist and there could be more than one reason for being afraid of the dentist.

Bad experiences can stem from experiencing physical or psychological pain during a past dental appointment.

Having a history of abuse can contribute to dental fear. This is due to someone who was abused physically or psychologically by an authority figure or someone they knew in the past.

A psychological fear of the dentist can stem from an uncaring dentist who made you feel pain during your visit can leave you traumatized.

An insensitive comment or remark by your dentist that makes you feel humiliated can cause a negative psychological impact on your entire view of dentists.

If someone observes or hears their caregiver talking about a traumatic dental experience it can greatly impact them. They can essentially pass on their fear of dentists to them through word of mouth or observing their behavior (vicarious learning). Media can also portray dentists in a negative fashion, so much so that it is almost a cultural norm to be afraid of dentists.

People can develop a fear of the dentist as a survival skill, also known as preparedness. In order to survive people developed fears or phobias such as a fear of snakes, lions or anything that could kill them. This type of learned behavior has helped keep people alive for millions of years.

Having an especially traumatic experience at the dentist can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who have dental PTSD are so afraid of going to the dentist that they have nightmares about the dentist or their painful dental experience.

How to Deal With Your Dental Fear

Being afraid of the dentist is nothing to be ashamed of because you aren’t the only one who is dealing with it. Many people are afraid  of it and end up losing their cool because they don’t know the appropriate methods to cope with it. Below are a few common practices to help you deal with dental anxiety.

Common Approaches

Tell-Show-Do is a method to help patients deal with dental anxiety, which was originally created for kids by Harold Addleston and re-named for adults into Explain-Ask-Show-Do by Fraser Hendrie BDS MFGDP. This method is where your dentist will explain what procedures they are going to do, ask if it’s okay, show you what they are going to do and then do the procedure. This creates a stable dentist patient trust foundation with people who have dental fear. It will help you be more in control of the situation and gain a better understanding of what is going to happen.

Structured time is where you can break up an appointment into different sections, where during these breaks you can relax and learn about the different procedures your dentist will preforming. It helps patients by allowing them to not feel overwhelmed by the length of the appointment and decreases anxiety. Many dentist don’t automatically do this so you will have to ask them if they can accommodate you.

Distraction and the Environment is where your dental office is a safe, comfortable environment to help distract the anxious mind. The five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell all contribute to remembering an experience. All of these senses need to be distracted by other stimuli in order for you to feel more at ease.

Sight: In order to help cope with dental anxiety dentist offices will usually decorate with more furniture and paintings to make it more comfortable and homey.

Sound: Music is usually played to help distract the mind from hearing other sounds that could trigger dental anxiety and keeps you more at ease.

Taste and Smell: Bringing water with you to the office or your favorite non-alcoholic beverage can help put you at ease. It can also distract you from smelling the dental equipment and chemical smells.

Touch: Dentists typically tend to be careful while performing their procedures to help provide you with the best treatment.

Breathing Techniques: Breathing in a certain way, such as deep breathing, can help you stop panic attacks and calm your anxiety. There are two different breathing techniques that Dental Fear Central mentions, Square breathing and Belly breathing.

Square Breathing

Square breathing is a breathing technique where you use the number three to count out the times you inhale, exhale and pause. According to Dental Fear Central, this method was created by Craigentinny Dental Practice’s course, Boat Your Dental Fear ecourse.

“Imagine in your mind travelling round a square.

Side 1  Breathe in slowly over a count of  3
Side 2  pause for a slow count of 3
Side 3  breathe out slowly over a count of 3
Side 4 pause for a count of 3
And repeat.

By deliberately slowing the breathing down you make it much harder for the body to go in to ‘panic mode’ and therefore much mess likely to tip over the edge of the rollercoaster.”

Belly Breathing

Belly breathing is a  technique used to help you breathe deeply so that you can stop a panic attack, anxiety or shortness of breath. According to Dental Fear Central this method was created by David Carbonell and is mentioned in his self-help workbook, “Panic Attacks Workbook” where you can learn how to overcome panic attacks.

  1. “Place one hand so it straddles your belt line and the other on your chest, right over the breastbone. You can use your hands as a simple biofeedback device. They will tell you what part of your body, and what muscles, you are using to breathe.
  2. Open your mouth and sigh as if someone had just told you something really annoying. As you do, let your shoulders and the muscles of your upper body relax downward with the exhalation. The point of the sigh is not to completely empty your lungs – but to relax the muscles of your upper body.
  3. Pause for a few seconds.
  4. Close your mouth. Inhale slowly through your nose by pushing your stomach out. That’s right, push your belly out, just like newborn infants do. This isn’t a beauty contest… When you’ve inhaled as air as you comfortably can, just stop. You’re finished with that inhale.
  5. Pause briefly. How long? You decide. Everybody has different size lungs and counts at a different rate. Pause for whatever time feels comfortable, and be aware that when you breathe this way, you are taking larger breaths than you are used to. For this reason, you should breathe more slowly than you are used to… If you breathe at the same rate you use with small, shallow breaths, you will probably get a little lightheadedness from overbreathing. It’s not harmful. Lightheadedness and yawning are simply signals to slow down. Follow them.
  6. Open your mouth. Exhale through your mouth by pulling your stomach in.
  7. Pause
  8. Close your mouth and go back to the inhale.
  9. Continue for a few minutes until you feel satisfied.”

What’s Next?

Dental fear is a common anxiety disorder in the United States. It affects children and adults causing them to suffer from bad oral hygiene by avoiding the dentist. Even though there is nothing to be afraid of your fear is real to you that’s why you should do as much research on this topic as you can in order to educate yourself further. Doing these things and knowing them can help you cope with your dental anxiety and eventually overcome it.

If you are in the area and would like to make an appointment with a dentist call us at 912-353-9533 or go to our website, Savannah Dental Centre, also, check out our Facebook @CohenDental to see what’s going on in our neck of the woods.


1. Dental Fear Central (n.d.) What is Dental Phobia? Retrieved March 15, 2017 from http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/fears/dental-phobia/

2. Dental Fear Central (n.d.). Fear of the Drill. Retrieved March 15, 2017, from http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/fears/drill/

3. Direct Interaction based on Tell-Show-Do Techniques. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2017, from http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/help/psychology/tell-show-do/

4. Structured Time. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2017, from http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/help/psychology/structured-time/

5. Distraction and The Environment. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2017, from http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/help/psychology/distraction/

6. Dental Fear Central. (n.d.). Psychological Approaches for Tackling Dental Fears. Retrieved March 16, 2017, from http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/help/psychology/

7. Dental Fear Central. (n.d.). Relaxation. Retrieved March 16, 2017, from http://www.dentalfearcentral.org/help/psychology/relaxation-techniques/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s