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Ways to cope with dental anxiety

Does the thought of going to the dentist make you break out in a cold sweat? You’re not alone.

Researchers estimate that dental anxiety affects up to 80 percent of adults in the U.S. That’s a lot of people who feel their heart race and stomach churn every time they step foot into their dentist’s office. But worse yet, dental anxiety can cause some people to skip their dentist appointments altogether — potentially leading to long-term oral health problems.

Getting a good cleaning and filling in cavities is always important — and even more so while using aligners. The good news is that straight teeth can be easier to floss and brush, making for smoother, less anxiety-inducing dental visits in the future — a win-win.

In the meantime, here are some ways to cope with dental anxiety.

Find a dentist who gets you

Overcoming dental anxiety starts with finding a dentist who can put you at ease.

“Different dentists have different personalities and bedside manners,” says Greg Scheier, DDS, owner of Scheier Dental Group. “Unfortunately there are some dentists who don’t have the time or the patience to spend the time with people with anxiety.”

Ask friends or relatives for recommendations on dentists in your area, then read online reviews from other patients to get a sense of their experience. Once you’ve narrowed down your options, set up a telehealth consultation from the comfort of your own home.

“This can provide an opportunity to ask questions and determine if the dentist is a good fit without the pressure of being committed to a service,” says Christine Myers, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Thriveworks in Midlothian, Virginia.

You’ll probably need to switch from telehealth to in-person appointments for certain types of care (like cleanings and fillings). But you can still get dental services digitally — including SmileDirectClub clear aligners to straighten your teeth. This means you can track your progress and have live video check-ins with your dental care team and your SmileDirectClub team from the comfort of your own home, which is much more relaxing than the dentist office.

Plan ahead

The more you prepare for your appointment, the more in control — and less anxious — you’ll feel once you’re in the dental chair.

“Try to book an appointment at a time when you’re not in a rush to get somewhere else, and don’t book at a time when you know you’re going to feel stressed,” says Heather Schneider, DMD, dental director at Delta Dental of Arizona.

If your dental check-up happens to fall on the same day as a big work presentation, for example, consider moving it to the following week.

In the days leading up to your appointment, jot down any questions you may have about your oral health, such as:

  • What can I do to improve my smile?
  • Am I grinding my teeth?
  • Why are my teeth sensitive?
  • What’s causing pain in my gums?
  • Can you show me how to floss correctly?

That way, you won’t forget to bring up your concerns, which can happen when you’re nervous, says Myers.

Finally, nosh on something nourishing—but not overstimulating—a couple of hours ahead of the appointment.

“Avoid caffeine and sugar before your appointment. Too much of either one can make you feel anxious and jittery,” says Schneider.

Bring a buddy

Going to the dentist doesn’t have to be a solo activity. If you’re feeling nervous, ask someone to come with you.

“Some patients find comfort in having a friend or family member in the treatment room with them,” says Scheier.

Having a loved one close by can help keep the jitters at bay. Plus, they can help make sure everything goes smoothly and get you home safely after an invasive procedure.

Share your concerns

Dental anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of. And in fact, being open about your feelings can give your dentist an opportunity to make the situation better.

“If your dentist doesn’t ask how you are when you arrive, prompt them to by sharing your dental anxiety. Your dentist will be able to give you better care when they know how you’re feeling and what’s bothering you about the appointment,” Schneider explains.

The dentist may slow down the pace of your appointment, carefully explain what they’re doing every step of the way, and offer to let you take breaks during your procedures — all of which can make for a more relaxed experience.

“By advocating for yourself and effectively communicating your concerns, you will feel more in control and likely more positive about the final outcome of your visit,” adds Myers.

Practice relaxation techniques

Pay attention to how your body feels throughout your appointment. If you notice signs of anxiety, like muscle tension, sweating, or breathing rapidly, practice relaxation techniques to help you calm down.

“Studies have shown that patients who can relax their muscles have less dental anxiety, so start by sitting comfortably. Beginning with your head and working down through your jaw, shoulders, and back, move each joint from side to side, loosening them up and releasing the tension,” says Schneider. “Remember, you can always come back to your breath if you begin to feel nervous.”

You could also try imagining you’re in a pleasant, relaxing environment. The beach at sunset, a quiet forest covered in snow, or even your childhood treehouse can all be peaceful places for your mind to escape.

Tune out the noise

Does the sound of the drill fill you with dread? Bring a pair of headphones to your next dentist appointment and tune out that anxiety trigger entirely.

“There aren’t many people who enjoy the sound of the dental handpiece during procedures, and music or a great podcast can be a wonderful way to put your focus on something pleasant and preferred,” says Schneider.

You could also download a guided meditation or white noise on your phone, both of which can set a more tranquil mood during a cleaning or other procedure.

Overall, work together with your dentist to figure out the cause of your dental anxiety and solutions that can help. Not only will getting comfortable with oral care help your smile, it could have a positive impact in other areas of life, as well.

“Confronting anxiety about going to the dentist may help you better advocate for yourself in other situations in your life that you may find elicit anxiety,” says Myers. “Being able to confidently speak up when you have questions or concerns can be empowering and help you take control of your health.”

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