Healthy Living

How to conquer your fear of the dentist

If you’ve avoided a dentist visit because it makes you anxious, you’re not alone. Find out how to make the dentist less stressful, and avoid serious dental issues later on.

Written by Merrilyn Hooley
It's estimated between  up to one in 5 Australians fear the dentist.

If the sound of the dentists’ drill makes your skin crawl, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s estimated up to 1 in 7 Australians experience high dental fear1.

Many fear it so much they avoid visiting the dentist all together, which can lead to more invasive and traumatic treatment down the track. For example, a regular clean can help prevent cavities in future, while a small filling now could prevent painful infection later on.

READ MORE: How often should you get your teeth cleaned

While most of us know we should see an oral health professional regularly, it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier! If you experience dental fear, there are some strategies you can use to make a check-up less stressful. Here are my tips to help you through your next appointment, and keep you going back for regular check-ups.

  • Talk to your oral health professional: Tell them anything you find particularly anxiety-provoking, for example. Once your oral health professional knows the things that cause you distress, they can work out ways to avoid them or make it more comfortable for you. Give them their best chance of helping you.
  • Familiarise yourself with the environment and people: If you haven’t been to the dentist in a long time, or you’re going to see a new dentist, begin by asking for a brief appointment that lets you simply sit in the chair and have your teeth looked at without any treatment. This may help you establish some trust with your oral health professional, familiarise yourself with the situation and give you some confidence.
  • Understand what the check-up or treatment involves: everything before it is done. This will help avoid any unexpected sensations or noises.
  • Establish some hand signals: These can help you to communicate to your dentist, even when your mouth is open and you are unable to speak. For example, you might establish a signal for ‘Stop’ or ‘I’m ok’.
  • Ask for small breaks during treatment: Regular breaks give you a chance to swallow, breathe, and speak.
  • Try relaxation techniques: Practice some relaxation techniques before your appointment and put them in to practice during. Take slow deep breaths right down into the pit of your stomach throughout. Controlled breathing is a very effective way to manage feelings of anxiety.
  • Distractions can help: Bring headphones and listen to a story, which is often a better distraction than music.
  • Try a different chair position: Ask to be able to sit up slightly in the dental chair. Perhaps put one foot on the floor if that helps you feel more in control.
  • Bring a support person: Take a trusted friend and ask that they be present throughout treatment.
  • Ask for written instructions: If you’re feeling anxious during your appointment, you may not be able to pay attention to your oral health practitioner’s post-op or hygiene instructions. Get them to write it down so you can refer to it later on.
  • Sedatives can be a last resort: If visiting the dentist continues to give you serious anxiety, and none of these strategies have helped, speak with your dentist and general practitioner (GP) to explore the possibility of taking a sedative before your appointment.

READ MORE: What benefits can dental health insurance give you?

1. Armfield JM. The extent and nature of dental fear and phobia in Australia. Australian Dental Journal 2010;55:368-377.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21174906

Written by Merrilyn Hooley

Dr Merrilyn Hooley graduated as a Dental Therapist and worked for a number of years in public dentistry within the Victorian School Dental Service. She developed an interest in the ways individuals’ personalities and moods affected their response to dental treatment and began studying Psychology, eventually graduating with a PhD. Merrilyn now works as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology, Deakin University, Melbourne. Her research interests revolve around parenting and parent-child relationships and the ways these factors influence children’s health (dental health and obesity) and psychological outcomes. Merrilyn is also a founding member of the Oral Health Advisory Panel.

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