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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : How can I deal with my fear of the dentist?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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July 23, 2012
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A:

Dental phobia is surprisingly common. In fact, it may be the most common phobia. This has an obvious negative effect on health. The fear may cause you to delay care. And that can cause small problems to become bigger ones.

An anti-anxiety drug may help ease your anxiety. But since stress and tension can increase your experience of pain, it’s also good to have a strategy to help you gain control of the situation.

The following techniques are easy to learn, get better with practice and can be used together. Try some of these techniques during your next dental visit:

  • Breathing techniques. Anxious people tend to hold their breath or breathe rapidly. That can make anxiety worse. Breathe in slowly and count to five before breathing out to another count of five. Make sure your stomach rises and falls with each breath.
  • Muscle relaxation. Tense and then release one group of muscles at a time. This can slow your heart rate and make you calmer. Just a few minutes of this may help during an appointment.
  • Desensitization. This approach combines relaxation techniques with gradual exposure to the triggers for your fear. If you’re afraid of needles, look at pictures of dental needles while practicing relaxation and breathing techniques.
  • Distraction. Turn your attention away from the procedure. Listen to music through headphones or count the tiles on the ceiling. Hypnosis is an advanced technique that helps you relax deeply and focus your mind elsewhere.

Here’s the best news: Dentists have gotten very good at making you comfortable before they start working on your teeth. The tools are more refined than ever, and the treatments are more efficient.

Still, there is no shame in being very afraid. Come to your appointment armed with a few techniques that you can use. If one doesn't work, have a backup ready.

Or find a dentist who is experienced working with fearful patients. He or she can help you bear the few moments of discomfort before the numbing medicine takes hold.

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