SD-dental anxiety

What Causes Dental Anxiety and How Do You Cope With It?

Getting anxious before a dental appointment is a normal reaction, especially if you’re unsure about what will happen. However, some people feel anxiety more intensely than others, preventing them from seeking treatment.

How does one handle dental anxiety, and what causes it in the first place? Keep on reading this article to find out.

What Is Dental Anxiety?

Dental anxiety is fear or stress related to a dental setting triggered by things like drills, needles, and more. Severe dental anxiety that causes irrational fear and prevents patients from visiting the dentist is classified as a dental phobia.

Medical conditions like generalized anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increases the likelihood of someone experiencing dental anxiety. Other conditions like depression and bipolar disorder can also increase the risk of dental anxiety.

What Are the Symptoms of Dental Anxiety?

According to experts, the signs and symptoms of dental anxiety are closely related to fight, flight, or freeze response. People also react differently from one another.

Some possible symptoms a person may experience include the following:

  • Sweating
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Fainting
  • Signs of panic or distress
  • Humor or aggression to hide their fear

How Does Dental Anxiety Affect Oral Health?

While most people don’t even bat an eye when visiting their dentist, some get so anxious that they miss routine dental examinations or avoid them at all costs. A 2017 study found that over 20% of patients with anxiety avoid going to the dentist, and 9-15% do not visit the dentist.

Another study in 2018 found that around 1 in 8 to 1 in 6 people who visit the dentist report their anxiety prevents them from getting treatment. The study also found that women are more likely to fear dental treatment. However, the study focused on fear and phobia instead of dental anxiety.

Avoiding the dentist can increase the need for treatment, worsen oral health, and cause further complications. A worsening oral health may lead to feelings of embarrassment and a loss of confidence, further worsening dental anxiety.

What Causes Dental Anxiety?

People feel anxious or fearful about a dental appointment or getting dental treatments for many reasons. According to a recently published review article, the most common reasons for dental anxiety are:

Childhood Trauma

Childhood traumas can cause severe anxiety and phobia that lasts a lifetime. This makes overcoming dental anxiety more difficult because patients may sometimes lose their memories surrounding the trauma, making their reactions more irrational.


Sometimes, the stereotype that dentists are cold and controlling can psychologically affect phobias. Patients often perceive a caring dentist to be less likely to cause trauma. On the other hand, a seemingly uncaring and cold dentist can deter someone with dental anxiety from even making an appointment.

Invasive Stimuli

Invasive stimuli like injections or procedures that intrude into personal space are more fear-provoking than non-invasive stimuli, like meeting a dentist.

Indirect Sources

A common negative image of anxiety or phobia in society and media may worsen dental anxiety. Hearing stories from close family members or friends about negative dental experiences may also lead to dental anxiety. However, learning from indirect sources isn’t a major cause of dental anxiety.

Incompatibility Between Dentist and Patient

A dentist and a patient that isn’t compatible at the get-go may lead to a loss of confidence, a sense of losing control, and an expectation of pain or discomfort. Many patients still blame the same dentists who cared for them during their childhood for their anxiety. This shows the importance of establishing a positive and reassuring relationship with a dentist early on to reduce anxiety.

Dental Anxiety Management Strategies

According to an article published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, here are some dental anxiety tips that can help you get through your dental appointment:


You can distract yourself before your appointment. Bring along some headphones to listen to music or an audiobook. You can also squeeze a stress ball or play with a fidget toy.

Another thing to try is to imagine yourself in your happy place. This could help you escape your surroundings and stay calm.

You may also ask your dentist for other options.

Relaxation Exercises

Sometimes, tensing your muscles can help you relax. You can do this by gradually relaxing one muscle group to the next. Tense the muscles for five to seven seconds, then relax them for 20 seconds.

You can also practice this exercise before your appointment. However, you should speak to your doctor about the suitability of these exercises if you have a medical condition.

Speaking Up

Let the whole dental office know about your anxiety, including your dentist. Let them know what makes you anxious or if you had bad past experiences.

You should also let your dentist know if you’ve ever felt pain even after getting anesthesia. Some patients experience unnecessary pain and feel reluctant or embarrassed to tell their dentist about it. It’s better to start treatments with a higher anesthesia dose than to give more during the treatment.

Let the dental team know about coping strategies that have worked for you in the past or ones that you would like to learn. You can also request simple and shorter appointments.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions and agree on a signal you can use to let them know that you need a break from the treatment.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing increases oxygen to your body, which helps slow down your heartbeat and relax your muscles. You can do it anywhere, even when you’re already sitting in the chair before you start treatment.

You can try different breathing techniques. For example, try taking a deep breath and slowly counting to five. Hold your breath for five seconds, then slowly exhale or sigh. Repeat it four to five times.

Sedation Dentistry

Sedation is available for patients with dental anxiety. Your dentist may recommend laughing gas or anxiety-relieving medications to help you relax before the treatment. Avoid driving to and from the dental appointment, and take someone with you if possible.

Key Takeaway

Dental anxiety is a more common occurrence than most people think. It doesn’t keep people from going to the dentist in most people. However, some people have too much anxiety that it prevents them from visiting the dentist and getting the care they need. This could lead to oral health problems in the future that will need more care and treatment.

An individual with dental anxiety can take small steps toward reducing their anxiety. These steps can include talking to the dentist, distracting themselves, and finding relaxation techniques when visiting the dentist. They may also try sedation dentistry and anxiety-relieving medications.

Begin a positive dental experience at Sunrise Dentistry.

Our dentists in Durango, CO, and their staff are accommodating and chill people who understand dental anxiety and other conditions like generalized anxiety disorder. They also provide sedation dentistry to help patients easily get through their appointments and much-needed treatments. Call us and start your journey to a bright smile today.

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