Even before entering the practice or seeing the dental chair, it happens: your muscles tighten, your pulse and blood pressure rise, you begin to sweat, and your hands shake. Sound familiar? If so, then you, like many people across the globe have experienced dental anxiety. In fact, research demonstrates that dental anxiety or phobia affects between 13-24% of people all over the world. For some, dental fear is so extreme that it prevents them from receiving proper oral health care. 

At Penn Dental Medicine, we take dental anxiety seriously. We believe that no one should feel ashamed to express their concerns about getting dental treatment. To help better understand and accommodate different kinds of dental anxiety, PDM continues to conduct specific studies. For example, we are currently monitoring a study involving patients avoiding the dentist—whether out of dental anxiety or fear surrounding COVID-19—or both.

Learn more about our commitment to prioritizing your safety and comfort by exploring the triggers and solutions surrounding dental anxiety. 

What Are People with Dental Phobia Most Fearful About?

What we know to be true about dental phobias and anxiety is that they are real—and common. One study cites dental anxiety as the fifth most prevalent type of anxiety. But, what is it that causes a person to be fearful? While the answer varies depending on a number of factors, many people fear similar things when it comes to dental visits. 

Common triggers for people who experience dental anxiety include:two student dentist perform dental work on a patient who has dental anxiety

  • Fear of pain
  • Phobia of blood
  • Trust issues (often from a past negative dental experience)
  • Concern they will be treated poorly or humiliated
  • Worry over the unknown
  • Distress related to the possibility of choking or gagging
  • Panic at the thought of being helpless (not in control) 
  • Uneasiness about radiation, mercury poisoning, or other potential health risks

Of course now, whether one has dental anxiety or not, it’s common for people to feel worried about going to the dentist during COVID-19. 

That is why Penn Dental Medicine is currently conducting a study on why people avoid going to the dentist, especially during the pandemic. Penn’s ongoing research allows us to better understand how to help patients with a fear of going to the dentist. 

Techniques on How to Cope with Dental Anxiety

While we continue to investigate how to help patients with dental anxiety, there is a great deal we already know when it comes to coping mechanisms. There are several things that can be done on part of the dentist and patient, to reduce and even eliminate dental anxiety. 

Take a look at multiple techniques to help cope with fears surrounding the dentist:

  • Tell Your Dentist Ahead of Time
    Don’t be afraid to tell your dentist (in our case, student dentist) about your anxiety. Knowing what triggers your fear can help lead to solutions (such as creating special hand signals to indicate discomfort during treatment or the option for nitrous oxide). 
  • Ask Questions
    One of the things that makes people with dental anxiety feel most fearful is the unknown. At PDM, we welcome your questions! We strive to provide you with informational and educational resources that will keep you aware and informed of any dental procedure you’d like to learn more about. 
  • Bring Headphones (And Other Comfort Items)
    Listening to a favorite song or exciting audiobook can help occupy your mind and take attention away from what’s happening in the dental chair. Some people find it helpful to bring a small stress ball or plushy to squeeze. 
  • Practice Self-Calming Strategies
    Focusing on your breath—counting as you slowly inhale and exhale can help you relax your mind and body. You can also do a “body scan” in which you pinpoint areas where your muscles are tightened and release them—one at a time. 
  • Try Therapeutic Options
    People have found psychotherapeutic approaches helpful in overcoming dental anxiety. These can include counseling, biofeedback, hypnosis, acupuncture, and certain types of cognitive-behavioral therapies.  
  • Be Patient
    Dental anxiety is likely not going to go away overnight. Our student dentists are accustomed to helping patients with dental anxiety and are exceedingly patient, so we encourage you to also be kind and patient with yourself as you learn, adapt to, and try new coping skills. 

One Last Bonus Tip for Dealing with Dental Anxiety

Because PDM is a teaching clinic affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, it means that all dental students are supervised by faculty members who are leaders in their field. It also provides patients the benefit of knowing they are receiving dental care founded upon heavily researched approaches—such as helping ease dental anxiety. 

Even now, amidst continuing rising COVID-19 numbers across the nation, studies have shown that visiting the dentist is not only safe, but recommended by the American Dental Association (ADA) as an essential health service. 

To further help ease dental anxiety, we offer patients a free download outlining the comprehensive services provided through Penn Dental Medicine. Take advantage of this offer and become familiar with how to prepare yourself for your next dental visit. 

If and when you’d like to join us for a dental visit, click here to make your appointment. 

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