Coping With Dental Anxiety

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Dentist visits, or even the very thought of them, might trigger feelings of nervousness or anxiety for some. Whether it's due to a fear of pain, a visceral reaction to the sound of the drill, or memories of past negative experiences, dental anxiety is not an uncommon fear to affect people. Even though there have been many advances in the dental field to reduce discomfort and pain, fear of the dentist is still fairly widespread among both adults and children.

Visiting the dentist regularly can be essential for maintaining good oral health, which can affect various other aspects of overall well-being. Managing a fear of the dentist is possible with the right approach. Below, we explore strategies that may help you reduce fear related to the dentist so you can get your check-ups or necessary procedures with a bit less stress.

You can live well with dental anxiety

Understanding dental treatment anxiety and dental phobias

Dental anxiety is a spectrum ranging from a sense of nervousness to a diagnosable disorder. For example, it’s natural to feel tense before a potentially painful dental procedure. However, someone with a specific phobia of the dentist, or dentophobia, may experience debilitating anxiety symptoms when visiting the dentist or even just the thought of dental procedures. A specific phobia is a diagnosable anxiety disorder per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that typically requires professional treatment.

General, non-clinical anxiety about going to the dentist could look like nervousness, muscle tension, and a pit in the stomach. In contrast, when faced with the thought or object of their phobia, a person with dentophobia could experience severe anxiety symptoms like:

  • Sweating, shaking, and other signs of fear
  • A rapid heartbeat
  • Fainting
  • Panic attacks
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Feelings of dread
  • Avoiding the dentist at all costs
  • Additional effects caused by symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, high stress levels, and health problems resulting from a lack of dental care

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a diagnosable mental health condition like a specific phobia or other anxiety disorders, it’s generally recommended that you meet with a qualified mental health care provider for support and treatment advice. The recommended treatment for specific phobias is usually exposure therapy or other forms of psychotherapy, sometimes in combination with medication. Note that even those who aren’t presenting with signs of a diagnosable disorder may benefit from engaging in some form of talk therapy.

Identifying possible causes of dental anxiety

It may be helpful in the process of addressing dental anxiety to consider where this fear may have come from. Common causes of dental anxiety can include:

  • A fear of pain
  • Negative past experiences, creating a vicious cycle of fear
  • Embarrassment or shame about the condition of one’s teeth
  • A sensitive gag reflex
  • A general fear of medical procedures
  • Related childhood trauma

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

If a person’s dental anxiety qualifies as a clinical specific phobia, research suggests that genetics and childhood experiences may also play a role in why that phobia may have developed.

Helpful tips for your next oral health or dental appointments

If you’re planning a dental visit soon, there are a few tips that may help it be less stressful. First and foremost, letting your dentist know about your fears or anxieties before your appointment may help put your mind at ease and allow them to better support you. You might explain your concerns and ask any specific questions about the procedure that they plan to do. There’s typically no need to feel self-conscious, as they’re likely used to these sorts of questions. 

You could also request accommodations that may help you feel better about the dentist work they’ll be performing, such as the ability to use headphones with calming music or a guided imagery practice, asking to take breaks as needed, or asking the provider to explain each step to you before they begin.

Here are some additional tips for preparing for a dental appointment and managing anxiety during your visit:

  • Choose a dentist you trust and feel comfortable with. Extra research and evaluation of patient reviews can be helpful if you’re choosing a new practitioner. 

  • Research any planned procedures beforehand to help yourself mentally prepare and gain a better understanding of what to expect.

  • Avoid caffeine for several hours before your appointment, as research suggests it may increase anxiety and jittery feelings.

  • Bring a friend or family member for moral support and to help keep you calm. 

  • Write down any questions or concerns that you want to ask about ahead of time, which can help you feel more prepared and help you avoid forgetting anything.

  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or visualization, before and even during the appointment to help keep your nervous system in a calm and relaxed state. Positive self-talk may also help you feel relaxed.

  • Ask about the possibility of having numbing agents or general anesthesia for certain procedures, if applicable.

You can live well with dental anxiety

Seeking professional support for dental anxiety or dentophobia

Symptoms of both dental anxiety and dentophobia have the potential to cause distress and make it difficult for a person to receive the care they may need to promote oral health and prevent gum disease. 

If dental anxieties or fears are causing you to avoid the dentist altogether, seeking the support of a mental health professional might be required. Therapy in particular may help a person learn to identify and shift distorted thoughts about the dentist or dental procedures in order to reduce symptoms and receive dental care with less anxiety. 

If you’re interested in receiving therapy, you can choose between in-person and online care in many cases. Those who lack providers near them or whose anxiety symptoms make it difficult to leave the house may find it more convenient to attend online therapy. A growing body of research suggests that online therapy may offer similar outcomes to in-person therapy in most cases, so you can typically feel confident in choosing whichever format you prefer.


Dental anxiety exists on a spectrum, from natural nervousness to a diagnosable phobia per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Understanding the possible root causes of dental anxiety, communicating with your dentist about your fears, preparing for appointments effectively, and using coping strategies like relaxation techniques may help make your next dental appointment a less stressful experience. If you're experiencing symptoms of a specific phobia or are looking for support in managing general anxiety, meeting with a therapist is generally recommended as well.
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