November 20, 2020

The Psychology Behind Dental Anxiety: Tips to Managing the Fear of the Dentist


Are you one of the many Australians that are afraid of the dentist? 1 in 6 Australian adults and 1 in 10 children have an acute fear of the dentist - with terrible consequences to their oral health. If your anxiety prevents you from seeking dental treatments, routine check-ups and regular cleans, dental diseases can get out of hand and you are more likely to require more complex treatments down the line. The good news is: No matter how severe your anxiety is, there are always ways to help you manage it. 

Dental anxiety vs. dental phobia

Both terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Dental anxiety is a term used to describe the feelings of unease, fear and stress before or after a dentist appointment. It can be triggered by a variety of factors, including bad experiences, the fear of needles or a perceived lack of control.

Being scared to visit the dentist can result in delaying or avoiding dental treatments altogether. When dental anxiety is severe and results in complete avoidance, it can be classified as dental phobia. Dental phobia is a very intense experience, leaving patients feeling completely overwhelmed. Even the thought of visiting the dentist can throw them into a state of panic. 

Dental anxiety is very common 

Many people experience a fear of the dentist, some have anxiety over it and others, although it may be less common, even have a dental phobia. Some studies estimate that as much as 24 per cent of people around the world are affected by dental anxiety. According to research published by the University of Adelaide 5 per cent of the Australian population suffer from dental phobia.


The causes of dental anxiety

The fear of the dentist can have many causes but is most commonly attributed to negative experiences during previous dentist visits. Past traumas, especially those from our childhood can greatly affect how we feel when we are due for a dental checkup, even decades later. “Negative childhood experiences can set our brains to constantly feel danger and fear,” says psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert Bessel van der Kolk, author of the bestseller “The body keeps the score”.  

More recently, research suggests that avoidance behaviour and fear is heavily linked with our ‘perception’ or ‘expectations’ of how the experience will be rather than an actual past event. In other words, some of us are worried about the unknown, a procedure they have yet to experience. The general invasiveness of the dental process can instil a sense of fear and invasion in our minds. 


Fully relinquishing control during an appointment can be a great source of distress for many. 

“Patients are generally placed in a reclined position, increasing their sense of powerlessness, and (...) little control over the situation”, explains a report for dental practitioners by the University of Adelaide. This position along with the preconceived ideas can cause us to feel uncomfortably vulnerable and sensitive in the situation.

How to tell if you or a loved one have dental anxiety

People that are afraid of the dentist may experience:

  • Fidgeting with hands or other parts of the body
  • Sitting upright and in a tense, uncomfortable position 
  • Speaking too loudly and very quickly
  • Rapidly flicking through magazines or finding ways to distract themselves
  • Being restless and not sitting still, constantly changing their position
  • Sweating, shaking, fast breathing
  • Startled reactions to noises or other movements

How to treat or help dental anxiety

There are some basic methods for less severe dental anxiety:

  • Talk about it with your dentist.

Sharing your feelings is part of the journey. You may find it helpful to chat with your dentist about your fears before your appointment and get it off your chest. When you call to make an appointment, tell the receptionist about your fear and remind the dentist about your anxiety when you arrive.

Request a conversation to speak about how the situation will be handled. You can ask them to take you through the procedure step by step and request they explain the process as they go. Knowing what exactly will happen, makes things a lot easier, helping you to feel more in control and knowledgeable about what is going on.

Discussing with your dentist what signals you can use to pause or stop the procedure if you are feeling too anxious. Maybe a lift of the hand can be your way of saying ‘please take the utensil out of my mouth. I am feeling uncomfortable’. This method could prevent any sudden movements and builds a sense of trust between you and your dentist.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Knowing what is going to happen can greatly alleviate any fears of the unknown. 

Are you wondering what to expect from your All-on-4® dental treatment? Find all the answers you seek in our guide: All-on-4® treatment concept: It’s time to rediscover your confidence.

  • Practice mindfulness techniques.

Relaxation takes practice. Deep breathing exercises will help you learn to control and slow down your breath, which will immediately make you feel less anxious. An example: You may inhale and slowly count to four, then do the same as you exhale. Do this on your way to the appointment or in the waiting room, and you’ll feel a lot more comfortable and at ease. Go ahead and try it now!

A body scan can have similar effects. Focus on one body part at a time, for about 5-10 seconds. Starting with your right side, scan the tip of your toes, the bottom of your feet, heels, ankles, and so forth until you reach the top of your head. Repeat the same on the left side. As you do this, focus on releasing tension. Soon enough, you will feel completely relaxed.

  • Distract yourself

Distraction techniques can work wonders if you find yourself nervously sitting in a dentist chair. They range from the obvious to the more subtle and are used to relax you by taking your mind off what is stressing you out. You may try wearing headphones and listening to an audiobook, music or your favourite podcast. Otherwise, try to occupy your hands by squeezing a stress ball. Does your dentist have a TV? Perfect, try to follow along with what’s happening on the screen.

dental anxiety

More serious dental anxiety or dental phobia:

  • Seek psychological help

Sometimes the fear of the dentist runs deeper than just a fear of being poked and prodded. A therapist or counsellor may be able to provide counselling to help you discover the root cause of your anxiety. They can also provide you with the right tools and techniques to manage negative thoughts and emotions.

  • Conscious sedation

Conscious sedation can be performed at specific dentists or dental clinics that are equipped with the necessary facilities. The sedation is done through an intravenous (IV) drip. Patients are put under light sedation. They are not recommended to drive home on their own afterwards.

  • Sedation dentistry or sleep dentistry

This type of dentistry is aimed at patients with severe dental anxiety. To do the necessary procedures, patients can choose between:

  • Minimal sedation - you are awake but relaxed.
  • Moderate sedation (formerly called "conscious sedation") - you may slur your words when speaking and not remember much of the procedure.
  • Deep sedation - you are on the edge of consciousness but can still be awakened.
  • General anesthesia - you are completely unconscious.

Consequences of dental fear and severe anxiety

Irregular or skipped dental appointments can kick off a vicious cycle. The less often you make it to your dentist, the greater your fear will most likely become. This can cause oral health problems and stand in the way of early detection and prevention. In the long term, more dental procedures or treatments might be necessary to fix the dental problems caused by infrequent visits. If teeth are decayed and can not be saved, this can result in a need for dental bridges and implants.

Don’t delay seeking help! Your dentist will do their best to create a stress-free environment for you. And whilst your teeth and gums become healthier, each dental treatment will get easier for you. 

If you have any questions or concerns about your dental appointment at a local Next Smile™ All-on-4® Centre, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our friendly staff. We’re more than happy to discuss the details of your procedure with you and take all of your worries away. Give us a call or book your appointment online today.