7 Tips for Overcoming Fear of the Dentist

7th January 2011

Historically, I’ve been so terrified of the dentist I would have panic attacks at the thought of going — I mean that literally. I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up, or possibly die a horrible dental chair death to a symphony of drills. This complicated things when I finally got dental insurance and had an appointment where they told me I’d need about $30,000 of work beyond what was covered. That was when I was 22.

If you’re similarly terrified of the dentist, I found that being trapped in the elevator at my dentist office really helped put things in perspective, so try that. Otherwise, my tips for overcoming dental paralysis for major procedures are as follows:

1. Manage your own pain. Accept that there’s no need for you to feel anything beyond the novocaine shot. The minute you do, ask for more novocaine. Because of the panic, I metabolize that stuff like crazy, and have to ask for up to two reapplications per procedure. Raise a finger so they know to pause and tell them you have sensation. A good dentist is uncomfortable when you are, and they’ll take care of it or explain your options.

2. Close your eyes. You don’t need to see the implements. Especially not the needle. Breathe.

3. Pay attention to your body. Note how your entire body is clenched like a vise? Concentrate on relaxing your muscles one and at time, from the toes up. Unclench your jaw. Unfurrow your brow. If you feel yourself panicking, start again from the toes.

4. Wear headphones. Loud, soothing music you rarely listen to in real life. No need to sabotage your favorite tunes with dental recall. Ask your dentist to squeeze your hand if he or she needs something.

5. Find an escape. If your dentist doesn’t already have one, ask him or her to hang a poster of a soothing scene (the ocean or something) on the ceiling above the chair. That way, if you do open your eyes, there’s something non medical to look at.

6. Care for yourself. When you’re back at home, ice your jaw and rinse gently with warm saltwater whenever you’re in pain. This controls swelling and infection, both of which cause a lot of the post-procedural pain. If they gave you painkillers, take them the first day even if you don’t think you need them. If they gave you antibiotics, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take every last one of them.

7. Take it easy. Trashy magazines, warm broth, ice cream.

Rinse. Repeat.

What did I forget? Tips for making your dentists appointment more bearable? Fill us in.

88 thoughts on “7 Tips for Overcoming Fear of the Dentist

  1. Sarah

    I say this, which shouldn’t need saying, because so many women I know don’t feel empowered about their own care.

    If your dentist (or any medical professional) doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t respect your wishes, and/or makes you feel uncomfortable. TELL THEM. And if they don’t fix it or change: DUMP THEM.

    Seriously. You are not married to them. Change. You deserve it.

  2. stephanie

    I know it sounds a little Pollyanna but this really helped me last time I was in the chair: I just sent out thanks that I was living a life where I could even get dental care and that I could afford it. (even if it was a tight squeeze on our budget.) I also thought to myself, over and over, how thankful I was that my every day life life doesn’t include pain. Not all of us are so lucky. And then I thought about the coffee I was going to have afterwards. :)

  3. Samantha S

    Nitrous. Oxide.

    They will give it to you if you ask, even for routine cleanings – about $1/minute and worth every penny. I’ve had jaw surgery and three sets of braces – which means that I typically clench and otherwise make it hard for the hygienist to get at my teeth. The nitrous gives me enough distance from the proceedings to let her in so she can do her work.

  4. melissa

    I thankfully don’t have a fear about going to the dentist, but I was once told a long time ago NOT to shut my eyes during a procedure, under the theory that shutting off one sense can heighten the others. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I do find if I close my eyes, all I can focus on is what I’m hearing, which usually is much more unpleasant to me than what I can see.

  5. Corin Boyko

    Find a dentist who uses a water pick rather than the metal pick for tooth cleaning. So much more comfortable, gets your teeth so much cleaner. Oh, and usually means that your dentist rather than the technician does the cleaning, because apparently that shit is high tech? Also, Isak Dinesen was right: “The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.” And by the sea I mean rinsing with salt water. Seriously. Also very, very good for healing piercings.

    Also, if you’re prone to gum sores and stuff, Ambosal is good stuff.

    Also, I find it bizarrely comforting to interrupt my dentist mid-flossing speech: “Yes, I know I should floss. No, I don’t. Can we move on?” The last thing you want to do when you’re about to be uncomfortable is an attempted guilt trip. It might not be the most polite thing in the world or the most mature thing in the world, but if you don’t want to listen to it and you find it makes you less likely to go to the dentist, then I think it’s pretty fair to try and head it off.

    I also tend to treat myself like a little kid after going to the dentist–when I was five I used to get a trip to the treasure chest and a milkshake if I was good–why not when I’m 25? At some level, we’re all this Pavlovian even if we want to be grownups.

  6. Kate

    I can’t believe you don’t go for the nitrous!

    Long story – when I was 12 I fell off a cliff and broke my jaw. I had surgery to reattach my mandible to the rest of my face, healed for about a year and a half, and then had braces put on and my wisdom teeth out in quick succession. By the time I was 18 I started getting physically ill at the IDEA of someone else prodding my face.

    Fast forward 5 years before I tried to go to the dentist again and had the full on panic attack that you describe. I could get myself in the seat and force myself to ignore my fight or flight response and suffer through the cleaning/drilling/root canal. AFTER any appointment is when the real trouble would start and I’d need to spend two to three days in a quiet room because I’d have a migraine from the tension and panic (my TMJ was exacerbated by my full body tension).

    Finally I went to a new dentist who approached my mouth with a cleaning implement and I started bawling. He smartly refused to work on me and talked to me about my issues and recommended nitrous during my procedures.

    Now, it’s a night and day difference. I get novocaine AND nitrous and I don’t freak out. I just float in my brain and listen to music and am aware of what’s going on but I don’t feel the need to freak out about it. Now I can drive myself home from appointments AND go back to work the same day which was impossible before.

    I will never have another dental procedure without it.

  7. Abi

    I had my first ever root canal last year. I delayed the procedure for 5 years. I kept using the excuse, “we moved”. Finally my husband said to just suck it up and get it done. The surgeon was AWESOME. She said the second I feel anything, let her know and I did. I closed my eyes as soon as we started and did not open them unless she was asking me a question. I tried to relax and tried to take a “waking nap”, if that makes sense. She also had a great music selection, which helped greatly. I took the pain meds, I took the antibiotic after.

    I have to see her again soon to have a wisdom tooth removed and I’m okay with that. :)

  8. Jill

    Xanax beforehand. Then nitrous oxide and novocaine. And a dentist you’re comfortable with who listens to you. I don’t have dentist-specific issues but do have needle phobia that triggers panic attacks, and the only way I could get to an appointment that required needles in my mouth was a xanax and the knowledge that I didn’t have to be in pain in the chair. And that my dentist would be kind to me and listen to me. Speak up, ask for meds, ask for more pain relief.

  9. Julie Carpenter

    My dentist in my hippy town uses acupuncture. I have used that for minor work in lieu of Novocaine. I am the kind of person who needs 4 ampules of the stuff and it still doesn’t work. The acupuncture works like a charm.

    They also have a massage therapist on staff to provide foot massage/reflexology for anxious patients at no additional charge. Heaven.

  10. Kelly H

    Ditto on the Nitrous Oxide. Seriously. There is NO SHAME in asking for it no matter what age you are! I HATE the dentist and avoided it for way too many years. I finally found a “sedation dentist” in my area and met her and she is the bomb. She’s the one who had me try the nitrous and there is just no going back. She also is very patient in doing the numbing shots and will give me how ever many are necessary to have me totally numb. Having the right dentist is the key. They have to believe you are scared and are in pain and are willing to do whatever it takes to make you comfortable. For me, that includes nitrous. I have a lot of interesting conversations with myself when I’m on it and cannot even try to follow along with the dentist and her assistants while they are working on me. Love it. Love it. Life changing love it. No more gripping the chair and body aches the next day from all the tension. It’s amazing stuff.

  11. divrchk

    I’ve heard that red heads need more Novocaine than other people. They’ve done studies that red heads absorb it much faster.

  12. Amy --- Just A Titch

    I had similar dental fears (I bit a dentist once because he wouldn’t GET OUT OF MY MOUTH despite my clear discomfort) and I found a dentist who let me use nitrous (and even worked out a handy deal for me since I had four root canals, three fillings, a deep cleaning and my wisdom teeth out thanks to a weird genetic issue with my teeth not forming well) and had Netflix. Instead of being scared in a dentist’s chair, I was relaxed, giggly and watching Arrested Development, which is, in my opinion, even funnier while high on nitrous.

  13. Margot

    My last dental visit I went straight from the chair to the Anthropologie up the street. Nothing like adding to my mouth-debt with a little retail therapy.

  14. Kristen

    The best tips that my amazing holistic dentist and his staff have taught me:

    – Use a neck pillow filled with lavender or spritzed with a lavender scent. The pillow supports awkward neck positions (especially if your petite and don’t fit the dentists’ chairs well)and lavender is oh-so-calming.

    – Apply soothing clove paste for post-work achy gums and teeth

    – Whenever possible they run the machines while I’m sitting up and not feeling so vulnerable. Seeing and hearing them so I can recognize the sounds and vibrations eases my panic when I’m laying down in the chair.

    – What eases your tension in general? It’s laughter for me, so I listen to something funny on my way to the dentist and while I’m sitting in the waiting room and he always starts our appointments with a joke or funny story so we spend a few seconds chuckling together. It’s surprisingly effective.

  15. Julia

    I recently had an experience where I was really nauseous at the dentist and as a result we proceeded very slowly with everything. I sat for a while before any of the procedure began, and was able to get comfortable. My stomach settled, but I found that having the injection and then waiting a little longer than normal helped, and so to did having the dentist allow me to control the pacing of things (on account of the nausea). My dentist also has the ability to predict exactly how long things will last during a filling, which is huge help for me.

  16. Ris

    This is going to sound weird but I pinch my finger just a little bit so that I can redirect thoughts towards my hand and away from my mouth. This also keeps me from tensing up too much.

  17. madge

    If the procedure requires a sedative of any kind: A really, REALLY good friend to pick you up. The crap that comes out of your mouth (whether words or detritus) can be bad. Really, REALLY bad.

  18. Kristen

    I have a very strong gag reflex. My current dentist also has one and taught me this trick: ask for a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol, the smell of it opens your throat making you gag reflex farther down, and to think of something else like wiggling your toes.

  19. Meg

    First of all, this couldn’t have come along at a better time. I have serious dental phobia. I’d rather be in pain than sitting in that dentist chair with the light beaming down on me. This has, however, led to many years of just refusing to go see the dentist. The last two times I was there I had panic attacks. It was awful, especially having never experienced a panic attack before. This post (along with the last one – thanks for that, too. So brave to share!) has convinced me to call and make an appointment. I’ll bring along my ipod and a lavender neck pillow and take a ton of deep breaths.

    Thanks, from the bottom of my heart. I really needed this.

  20. Sarah M.

    find a dentist you love! that made all the difference in the world to me, and i tell her repeatedly the only reason i keep going back is because she’s awesome (and i know bad dentists, i spend thousands a year on dental care) she also gives you a big fuzzy warm blanket to use while you are in the chair, and something about that just soothes you right away. never fear-she washes them after each use-i asked ;)

  21. Christine G.

    I found that actually telling my dentist that I was scared made all the difference. Though it was not my first (or last) root canal, I had to have one a couple of years ago and I got really worked up about it. When I arrived at the appointment, I blurted out that I was really scared, and my dentist and his assistant were really sympathetic and made an extra effort to put me at ease.

  22. kat

    After having a dentist drill a tooth without novocaine (“oh it’s so small you don’t need it”) & then drill the corner of my lip accidentally, I didn’t go for 10 years!

    Then I found telling my dentist up front that I’m a sensitive patient & why made all the difference. Yhey are much more aware. My dentist also discovered that novocaine doesn’t work for me & I need a different number or a lot more. As the commenter before mentioned they have found this is very common with people with any red in their hair. My husband has the same issue.

  23. Leah

    Sunglasses. No joke. Dentists don’t bother me (I have pretty good teeth, thankfully), but the light does. And splatter. Wearing sunglasses means you can open your eyes and not be blinded by lights above you, and it means no crap gets into your eyes.

  24. lu

    I can completely relate. And, I am moving forward with having a procedure myself this year. No more being run by my teeth.

  25. Ariel

    My best friend was tied into a dentist’s chair when she was a child- standard practice at that dentists office, (but not looked favorably, her dad about killed the dentist when he found out,) but she has had severe anxiety ever since. So her husband has to call and make the appointment for her, and the dentist calls in an Rx for tranquilizers for her, and her husband has to take her and sit with her. She says it’s gotten a little bit better in the last year, but it is still not an easy thing for her to go.
    I personally have to have laughing gas before I even get stuck with a needle, but once I have the gas I’m good to go. I spend time trying to make myself worry or care about anything and thus far the gas makes me not care about tornadoes which is a huge fear of mine. However, it does not make me not hate my ex husband, so there you go. Nothing is perfect.

  26. Melissa

    This is amazing. I am just sitting here refreshing the comments! I just started what I expect to be a long dental saga. I think maybe I will just read this post over and over again all weekend and see if that helps….

  27. Jana

    Wait a minute – you can drive yourself home after having nitrous?! Is that true?

    @kristin a: I’m also feeling anxious just reading this.

  28. Jen

    Nitrous oxide, YES!

    And, not just headphones but noise-cancelling headphones for me.

    I am lucky enough to have a dentist who will stop what he is doing and remove his hands from my mouth if I raise my hand (as a prearranged signal to stop). Usually a couple breaths to feel safe and refocus and I’m an agreeable patient again. But I really need that sense of contol.

    The other thing that helped me was yoga/meditation. Everyone would tell me to slow my breathing down to calm myself, but I would still hyperventilate, just a little slower. Took a few months or a year of yoga to be able to finally control my breathing enough to tap into the calm in the dental chair, but that helps now too. Not as much as the drugs though.

  29. Angela

    As a lifelong dentalphobe, my most successful strategy apart from getting tons of Novocaine and finding a dentist I actually like is to make appointments EARLY in the day. For me anxiety is multiplied a million times if I have to wait all day before the appointment. If I can basically get out of bed and head there it’s not so bad, and then it’s OVER and I can feel all proud of myself all day long.

  30. Origamibug

    After years of panic before any dental appointment, I tried hypnotherapy. I was so happy I did. I am still a bit nervous, but it is nothing like it was before (passing out so suddenly that it appeared like a grand mal seizure to observers). It turns out I had vaso vagal syncope that was triggered by acute stress, my phobia of dentists. As long as a drink plenty of water in the 24 hours before the appointment (to keep my blood volume up), ask to elevate my feet during the entire procedure and for 5 minutes following and focus on my breathing (which is what the hypnosis empowered me to do), I am no longer afraid. And, I am giddy proud of myself like a 2nd grader every time I leave the dental office.

  31. auntjone

    I’ve never had major dental work done (yes, you may hate me) but my husband has. He got a root canal yesterday (on his 38th birthday, no less) and “got gassed” for the first time. He said he wouldn’t undergo another dental procedure without it. He also said that he had the “Hot dog, hot dog, hot diggity dog!” song from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse running through his head the entire time. So beware of that.

    @ #30 Jana- yes. I drove my husband yesterday but he said he didn’t feel hungover or sleepy or anything and probabl would have been fine one his own. The effects start to wear off soon after you stop inhaling it. You wear a mask during the procedure and the gas is on the whole time.

  32. Jan

    Another vote for nitrous oxide. And yes, you can drive home after. My dentist explained to me that it’s one of those things that, when it’s turned off, it clears your system really quickly. Like in just a few minutes, probably before I even got out of the chair to pay the bill. ~8p

    I’m another one who uses headphones and that helps a lot. Also an eye-closer here.

    I’ve had two root canals in my life (neither by my current dentist) and both were botched leading to unnecessary pain and then more expense when I had to go to an endodontist to fix it (which is what I should have done in the first place).

    So I’ve told my current dentist that, if he ever has to tell me I need a root canal, he should do it from across the room because my natural instinct is going to be to punch him in the mouth. Nothing personal.

    I have a high pain tolerance but don’t feel I should have to prove it at the dentist, and neither should anyone else.

  33. Maureen

    I keep my hands folded on my belly when I have dental work done. I find that if I focus on keeping my hands relaxed, ie don’t turn my thumb purple from sqeezing my fingers together, I will stay relaxed.

  34. Joelle

    My 2?

    1) If your dentist or hygienist does something you don’t like, tell them. If they continue, find a new one. My dad doesn’t like anyone chatting with him. It’s in his file – and he complained about one woman so much, she ended up getting fired. Not ideal, but it works.

    I don’t like being given the guilt trip about my care. I brush and floss, but between bad genes and bad water as a kid, my teeth are soft and I’m not going to be super OCD about it. Telling me what I “should be doing” just makes me feel bad and hate doing it, as well as going to the dentist. It took 3 years, but I finally found a nice dentist who doesn’t do it.

    2) Get a break between the shot of novocaine and the work. It takes time to start doing its thing – best idea my surgeon had for my root canal was the “free orthodontic consultation” included in the procedure. What it really was is a way to keep me distracted and busy while the shot kicks in fully.

  35. Sara

    A totally hot dentist. I don’t have a need for much more than twice-yearly cleanings, but my dentist is so good looking that I look forward to going.

  36. Meegan

    Wow. You are the first person who fears the dentist as much as I do. My prescribes Valium, which helps but only a little. Then they use the Nitrous Oxide, but that only works a little, too. I still feel that vise-like tension, and it usually results in a stiff neck and sore back the next day. I try the same muscle-release trick! And I always wondered why I need SO much Novocaine. I didn’t realize my paralyzing fear was causing me to need more shots. I need to calm down. I had a broken filling fixed December 26th and my jaw is just now feeling better. Thanks for sharing!

  37. Jan

    Oh man, I can relate to ALL of this. In my formidable years my baby teeth refused to budge while my adult teeth were lazy in coming down so my dentist pulled 9 of my teeth at various points through my early teenage years instead of letting nature run its course. Everytime I went I would dread the news that “yep, we should take out this one/these two/that molar, etc” and inevitably I would be back there a week later with a giant-handed dentist removing my bicuspid (I’m joking…I don’t even know what a bicuspid is).

    We moved cities in my mid-teens and we acquired a new and wonderful dentist. This dentist employed the “raise your hand if you’re in pain technique” and what a difference it makes to know you have a little more control as a patient. I ended up getting braces and had serious reshaping work done to sculpt and make my smile pretty. I was in the chair for about 3 hours and had a shot but it was no where near as traumatic as my previous “extractions” (I freaking hate that word).

    I dislocated my jaw in high school and ever since a dental appointment with a wide open mouth leaves my jaw aching even if the appointment isn’t too invasive. My trick is to take something BEFORE the appointment to dull the pain instead of waiting until I have a headache afterwards.

    Hands down though, if you’re dentist isn’t listening to you, find a new one. I also employ that rule for doctors and husbands. Just kidding, I wouldn’t leave a doctor on that basis – do you know how hard it is to find a GP who’s willing to take new patients these days??

  38. mbug

    As an adult, I have had a lot of dental procedures done; multiple root canals, multiple gum grafts and of course fillings galore.

    You MUST find a dentist with whom you feel comfortable. That is the key that opens the door to dental success.

    And I resonate with the “hot.” I think mine is Super Woman – gorgeous, smart and incredibly nice.

    Another good hint – if you need special work, go to a specialist! My dentist is so awesome and I feel so comfortable that I knew if she referred me to a specialist that I could trust that dentist as well. I went to an endodontist for 2 of my 3 root canals and it is a DREAM. This Dr. does root canals all day, every day. While this sounds like hell to me, it is something she clearly derives satisfaction from. Which means she does it as quickly and painlessly as possible and also that she’s heard it all – meaning whatever issue you have, she can solve it or work with it.

    And yes – ask for the drugs after a frank discussion with your professional. Dentists don’t want you to be uncomfortable, if for no other reason than because it makes their job more unpleasant! And I’ve never encountered one that wasn’t willing to write a prescription for before/during/after procedure meds.

  39. Alicey

    I really struggled to read this post, and couldn’t make my way through the comments because I have a massive dental phobia. I didn’t go for 19 years; then I needed a mouthful of fillings, my wisdom teeth removing and a couple of root canals.

    I found a dentist who did the work under anaesthetic. Sadly this is no longer legal in the UK, but it is still possible to have work done under sedation. I have been really trying hard to be braver, not least because otherwise I have to wait months for treatment (not good when bits of your teeth are crumbling on a daily basis).

    My best tip, and I’m sorry if someone has already said this, is to practice a form of self-hypnosis. I basically do that whole thing where you think of a beach/tranquil scene you have been where you were really calm and happy, and then try to picture every last detail. I try to imagine I’m there, I try to remember how I felt when I was there, I basically try anything I can to NOT think about what’s happening. I also wear headphones with loud music on.

    I feel your pain. I am speeding through this comment without re-reading because it’s making me feel sick to talk about it. Argh.

  40. Laura

    I have a slightly different kind of comment, that I hope will be helpful to someone out there. I think all the above comments about nitrous oxide and sedatives and relaxation and establishing / maintaining / insisting on a good relationship with your dentist are great.

    My comment is about where to go. I have lived in the SF Bay Area for ten years and in all that time, I had never seen a dentist here. For a few years, I’d just wait until I went back east and see my old dentist there for a cleaning or whatnot.

    But I live here and really, I should have a dentist. Finally, this past year I vowed to take care of this since I had a few weird hereditary teeth issues that needed to be handled.

    Enter the amazing pre-doctoral program at the UCSF School of Dentistry. Folks who do not have dental insurance (me!) and/or do not have tons of money to spend out of pocket on dental (me!) – this is for you. The clinic is huge, on the UCSF campus up on Parnassus; the pre-doc students are very professional and supervised very closely by faculty dentists; the whole program is run like a tight ship – and best of all, you can get all your dental work done at half the price or less of a dentist in private practice.

    Now, this may not be the very best option for those who need some special treatment and want it over ASAP. The fact that it’s a student clinic means the appointments take a little longer. But both of my students have been great – very interested in me, communicative, sensitive, concerned about how I was doing, and stellar at explaining everything beforehand and as they went along.

    I’m having an implant done there currently and it’s going great. People: quality, state of the art dental care, so, so cheap!

    Hope that helps someone who’s been putting it off because of the cost. Good luck!

  41. Kristy

    I have a real fear of going to the dentist too!! I had a broken tooth for years that I didn’t get fixed because I just couldn’t bring myself to make the appointment. I’m a lot better with it now (oddly after getting a root canal I started to get better!) and my tips are:
    Find a dentist you trust, explain to them that you are freaked out by “x” (for me it’s pain and not being able to stop when I need to) and get them to work with you on that
    Think of something really amazing that you are going to do afterwards and just focus on getting to that — remind yourself that the appointment will only take a short time in the context of your life
    Breathe and use your breath to relax your body

  42. BeckyC

    I can only recommend talking to your dentist/hygienist/surgeon. I’ve never met a true sadist at the dentist’s office. They truly do care about your comfort and security. Don’t be ashamed of your fear or discomfort. It’s not a natural thing, to be sitting in a chair with the lights and implements and such in your mouth. Tell the assistants how you feel and keep telling them. Raise your hand, work out a signal, wave, whatever. A relaxed patient makes for a quicker appointment and easier procedure.

    melissa is right – eyes shut makes me feel more. I try to stare at that weird light on an arm. It blocks the other items floating around my periphery.

    Nitrous did nothing for me. And the thing about redheads? Totally true. I got 2 crowns and needed so much Novocaine my dentist nearly had to CAUTERIZE my gums.

  43. rahree

    In the distraction category? I had a dentist in Pennsylvania who had virtual reality goggles and a big shelf of movies. He’d make sure I was numb, turn on the movie and work. And all of a sudden I was looking forward to that next appointment, if only to see the second half of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”

    corragio, amici!

  44. Tasha

    Thank you for the timing of these dental posts. I need to make an appointment but I’m on the verge of a panic attack just reading and writing this. Shaking hands, racing heart, teary eyes. For some reason it’s a little comforting reading about so many others with the same fear. I don’t know how to get past it enough to even find a dentist I like. How do you know if you’ll like him or her?

  45. jen

    During a terrible dentist experience (root canal at 21) 14 yrs ago, I fainted from anxiety (shout out to the fellow vasovagal sufferer above!) and have been working hard at alleviating the anxiety ever since. i had no fear of needles, docs, or dentists before that experience. slowly, slowly i’ve been getting a handle on it.

    big 1st step was going back to my prior dentist (whom i loved but was out of my area) for the next few years…2-hr round trips were worth it! after that, i bumped up my standards when looking for a dentist–looked for someone who made me feel comfortable, answered all my questions, and was understanding of my anxiety.

    i have recently found a one locally whom i’m happy with and just had a three new fillings put in. i have to go back for more work. funny enough, the final thing that put me at ease was something that had happened 3 days before my appt. i was looking through civil war medical photos (prob not an excellent good choice, but it is what it is), astonished at the number of wounded soldiers who died just due to infection and a young medical industry. all i could think after that was how lucky i am that i live in a time when these things are fixable, and we can be numb for them! i would never have thought that i would feel grateful for a needle in the mouth, but amazingly, i did. (ha, and for the first time ever, thanks to a great new doc, i didn’t feel that needle or anything afterwards).

    oh and as a SF bay area dweller, i second the above vote for UCSF dental school–i have heard fantastic things about it (newest technologies, great skill, and great prices) from quite a few folks.

  46. Lily

    Maggie, I want to tell you that this post (and all your health posts) have really affected me in a positive way. I’ve always felt really isolated with my fear because people tend to wave if off as “not a big deal.” To know that you and others suffer (and have overcome) something similar makes me feel less alone in the world. I know it took a lot of guts to write about your private journey on your public blog, but it made a difference in my life. Wow, that sounds corny, but it is true!

    Anyway, hypnosis has done a lot to change how I feel about the dentist. Mainly, it has helped me to think about things in a different way, which gives me time to actually do the relaxation techniques. They are some unreputable practitioners, but I was referred to an excellent psycologist who does it as part of his practice. After about two sessions, I felt like a weight had been lifted. I’d recommend it to anyone for any issue that is deeply emotional.

    (Also pre and post acupuncture and the BEST dentist ever help a lot.)

  47. misstraceynolan

    I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist. I hate the dentist.

    There’s no way that attitude helps, is there?

  48. swankette

    A dental dam. No, really – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dental_dam. It totally segregates your tongue and saliva from the work they’re doing, so the having to concentrate to keep your tongue out of the way and incessant gagging of the vacuum to clear out the saliva is GONE!

    Plus, you get to giggle when your friends look at you funny when you talk about how you were using a dental dam at your dentist’s office. :)

  49. Meredith

    It might not be your anxiety running through the pain shots. Redheads always need more pain meds (possibly not pills but def. during any procedure). My redheaded brother was told that as a teenager when he had an ingrown toenail removed. I had it happen on the freaking table. The doc and nurses so wanted to me just sleep and I babbled on asking if it was normal to “feel that”. They were flabberghasted I was awake and could tell EXACTLY what they were doing. I did not feel pain per se – but discomfort for sure.

  50. Rachel

    One of my friends had enough (with herself) of forgetting to take the antibiotics. So she would whole-heartedly agree with setting your alarm to take them–she did just that for every four hours. It was important, too, because she was sleeping all day and night long, for several days after having her wisdom teeth taken out, and just could not stay awake. She finally checked the label on the antibiotics…which were actually lortabs, as she had misread the label on the bottle.

  51. QoB

    ditto (for the Nth time) on the ‘redheads need more analgesic’ fact. It’s true, honestly, so ask for it. (it’s also true for some brunettes with the gene, so if you can feel it, ask for more drugs).

    I don’t have particular dental anxiety (I’ve had fillings and extractions done without analgesia) but what is really helpful is to know what they’re planning to do and how long each stage will take. Ask before they’ve injected and reclined you.

  52. KarinGal

    Absolutely NO CAFFEINE before an appointment/procedure. I follow this same advice before flying, too. Why add fuel to your inner fires?

  53. Tara

    I was terrified of the dentist after a bad experience as a little kid (bit the dentist, he told my parents not to bring me back). So, when I started my career and got good dental insurance I kept telling myself I would go get my (not so great) teeth sorted out.

    That took 4 years. I paid for the insurance and didn’t use it because I was afraid.

    Finally, I got a dentist recommedation from a coworker who loved her dentist. I made an appointment, explained my fears, and discovered I made an excellent choice- and not a moment too soon. I needed deep fillings in all of my molars and 2 crowns.

    The dentist explained everything she was doing. Would ask me to touch the drill before she put it in my mouth so I would be familiar with the sensation, and never ever made me feel bad for neglecting care.

    Since I got that taken care of, I’ve needed 2 root canals (I was warned that might be a possibility) and every time I’ve used the same visualization technique. After they numb me, I close my eyes and imagine I’m floating in the ocean. It really works!

    I think the biggest help for me was deciding I wasn’t going to be scared anymore and then refusing to let anyone make me feel bad. And pretending to float in the ocean. That’s just great.

  54. alice

    Oh, Maggie!

    I have such a severe dentist phobia that I cried when I saw the title of your post. But I soldiered on, and I’m glad I did.

    I know people love nitrous, but I can’t use it. It gives me severe anxiety and nausea. I think it’s one reason I have such a fear of the dentist, actually: the guy we used when I was little *insisted* that I take it, and it always made me sick. I really better not examine these memories any further–I can’t afford the therapy bills.

  55. Barb @ getupandplay

    One thing that has helped me is to NOT let other people tell me their horror stories. My MIL has a big dentist phobia and I swear, I have begun to be afraid of the dentist since knowing her!

  56. abby

    For fillings & smaller procedures, ask for the anesthetic without epinephrine. It takes longer to work and doesn’t last as long, but it doesn’t trigger the adrenaline response that may feel like a panic attack.

  57. Maren

    Ditto a million to having a good dentist who makes you comfortable, especially if, like me, you’re doing a prolonged run of work. I find that when I head to my next procedure, how I feel both before and during it is determined by what my experience was like the last time. I was having a super-good run with my current dentist, who’s really funny (and really skilled), and then I had one bad time when he was kind of in a hurry and I found that the next two trips were awful because I was starting to dread them again. Hopefully I’m breaking out of the spiral now since the last few have been OK, because building on that confidence that everything will be fine really makes all the difference.

    Also, yes, treats afterward. I get my favorite mocha frappe at the grocery store next door every time.

  58. leah klein

    Ask people in your area what dentist they use, or if they like their dentist. My parents did that when they moved to the area, and I’ve been going to the same dentist since I was a baby. He is the nicest guy, gives you plenty of options (for instance, I needed a filling and he asked if I wanted white or silver, and told me while white was more attractive, silver held better so I wouldn’t have to come in in the future and get it re-filled).

    The oddest thing about him is that he adds the word “happy” in front of everything, such as the “happy drill” and “happy numbing juice”. When giving a Novocain shot, he sings a song so you pay attention to him, not the needle.

    Also, whenever I try to be brave if it hurts a little, he can tell, and will stop and ask me if I’m ok and if it’s hurting. That’s a good dentist.

  59. annie

    Oh, how well I know this! I would have full blown panic attacks even calling the dentist on the phone to make an appointment, just two years ago. Now I happily bounce in to see my dentist and get cleanings like a normal person. Here’s what worked for me:

    1. Find a dentist that children love to go to.
    2. Tell the dentist you are extremely anxious. If the dentist’s reaction is anything but supportive, walk out. Walk away from a dentist who lectures you for not having been there – that’s not someone who understands.
    3. Use noise cancelling headphones and use the volume button like its for anxiety management (I would turn up the volume as I got more anxious)
    4. Tell the dentist whether you want to talk about everything or if you just want to try to zone out. I don’t want to touch the drill or anything, just tell me when the hard part is over.
    5. My dentist automatically asks me if I’m Ok every few minutes, but if he didn’t I would arrange a signal.
    6. Use nitrous.
    7. Give yourself a reward when its done. Its hard work, you shouldn’t be embarrassed and you should reward yourself for being so brave.

    After getting myself through the fillings I needed and through my first cleaning afterward, I started to wean off the nitrous and the headphones. I’m so freaking proud of myself, and you should be too. Good for you, Maggie!

  60. Ariann

    Valium (if you don’t have to drive yourself home) – 1 the night before and 1 an hour before the procedure. If you have to drive, Xanax, but it doesn’t work as well.

  61. Andrea

    True Story: I bit my dentist’s finger when I told him it hurt and still didn’t stop. I was 6. I still sometimes wish I could do that.

  62. Marie T

    I second that — as for more Novocaine if you need it. Let them know you are a nervous one — you don’t get a merit badge for suffering. I always give myself a prize for going – like a “no points counted” milkshake and a trip to the bookstore. Take painkillers before and ask for some if you are likely to be sore.
    And, I speak from experience, don’t avoid it. A toothache is not likely going to fix itself. Instead, it will get infected, abscess and turn into a larger more complicated problem. If something hurts – get it checked.
    And if they won’t work with you – call someone else. It’s a medical practice but there are options — you don’t have to suffer.

  63. s.a.

    Redheads require more anesthesia than the general population, novacaine in particular. Here’s a study that tackles the issue of redheads and dental work in particular: http://jada.ada.org/cgi/content/abstract/140/7/896

    “Genetic Variations Associated With Red Hair Color and Fear of Dental Pain, Anxiety Regarding Dental Care and Avoidance of Dental Care”

  64. Tracey

    I’m totally on board with the nitrous as well. That is awesome stuff.

    However, the last time I had a major procedure (2 wisdom teeth out) I couldn’t have the nitrous – for reasons I don’t quite recall – and I had to make do with freezing alone. I brought my iPod and had it ready on the one song I had decided to listen to. It was a loud, screamy song, and I CRANKED it every time they used a loud instrument and when they started wrenching on one of the teeth since it didn’t come out as easily as expected. Totally worked for me.

  65. schmutzie

    I am absolutely terrified of dentists, which means that I have not seen one in almost seven years. If I knew how to get my body to a dentist’s office, there might be hope. I think they’re going to have to stage a kidnapping with general anaesthesia.

  66. Amy

    My tip for surviving the dentist? Find one that does sedation!! Have heard of a new dentist in town that sedates you for the visit, get tons done in one go and remember NOTHING! Must book appt.

    You know, if I didn’t hate going so much. But love their ads that say they specialize in scaredy cats :)

  67. Amy

    Just reading your other comments and have to pipe in again.

    Ariel I was one of those kids that was ‘tied down’ and after I bit the dentist had my mouth propped open with some sort of archaic device.

    I have few memories from that age but the 4 year old in me just cannot shake that one loose..

  68. Tanya

    Nothing helps me overcome the pure terror I get just sitting in a dental chair. Music just seems overwhelming, and the terror is so physical there is nothing my brain can do to relax those muscles. Typically I would stew in it and dig my nails into my palms until they bled. My latest dentist noticed this and prescribed me lorazepam to take a couple hours before an appointment. And a whole new world opened up. Not only do I not care about anything when I’m in the chair, I typically fall asleep either during or after the procedure, and forget most of it after a few days. Brilliant. The con is that somebody has to drive me to and from the appointment. I have to go to the dentist unfortunately fairly frequently – I’ve always had problems – so knowing I get to be relaxed instead of thoroughly terrorized is very important.

  69. Jaye

    I can’t read all these comments right now so I hope I”m not being redundant, but …
    I have always needed way more novicaine than any dentist thought I should need. I recently read an article that said that redheads (yes, I am one) have some funky gene mutation that makes them … wait for it … have a reisistance to pain blockers like novicaine! It never occurred to me before, but it felt good to be validated.
    Here’s a link:http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/06/the-pain-of-being-a-redhead/

  70. elayne

    I used to work at a dentist’s office, but unfortunately that doesn’t make me more happy about dental work. And I have no suggestions other than what have already been mentioned, other than “Whatever usually works to quell your everyday anxiety, bump it up by about 5x for dental anxiety.”

    However, I do want to say three things about nitrous and the use of anti-anxiety medications.

    #1, about nitrous, it clears your system really rapidly, more rapidly if you’re given a few minutes of plain oxygen once the nitrous is shut off.

    #2, also about nitrous, it can interact in really weird ways with other drugs. We had a patient come in once who had been given anti-anxiety drugs, but was still nervous, so he smoked a few joints before coming in. The results were utterly hilarious – I had to put all the phones on permanent hold for about 15 minutes because we were all gasping for air from laughing at this guy, and it threw off the hygienist’s schedule for the rest of the day because she couldn’t work on her patient since they were both laughing too hard – but as hysterically funny as it was, the guy didn’t get his dental work done, so he had to go through all that anxiety AGAIN on another day. Only use what you really need, and tell the dentist everything else you’re taking (legal and illegal) before they put the nitrous on.

    #3, my father had horrific dental anxiety. He was in the military, and his experiences with their boot-camp dental procedures made it a hundred times worse. He refused to go to the dentist unless and until it was required by his military commander (for troop preparedness). The anxiety would then trigger cluster migraines that would leave him bedridden for days and, one time, hospitalized for more than a week.

    After he got out of the military, he didn’t go to the dentist for well over a decade. When he did go, of course, he needed a lot of work. So he found a dentist who would give him sedatives and anti-anxiety. My dad’s a big guy – 6’7″ and 350+ pounds – and his anxiety was profound, so they made sure to give him a high-dose and plenty of pills.

    Unfortunately, the anti-anxiety drugs caused some short-term memory issues. After a dental appointment in the morning, he went to the bank that afternoon and withdrew more than a thousand dollars in cash that they needed to pay something. He came immediately home and went to do chores. When my mom asked where the money was, he #1 had no memory of going to the bank, and #2 had no idea where the money was. They finally found about $400 of it in the glovebox tucked into the car owner’s manual, and a friend mentioned that my dad had stopped by his house but “couldn’t remember why he was there,” but the rest of the money (and afternoon) is a complete blank. (And my dad’s so tight with money, there’s no chance he just pretended not to know what happened.)

    That was enough of a wake-up call that he stopped using the anti-anxiety medications, and found that the nitrous worked fine by itself. That first appointment without anything to calm him down ahead of time was a bitch, but once he realized that the nitrous would be enough during the visit, it made his subsequent visits much easier. He now goes every six months for cleanings on his remaining teeth, and doesn’t even have anxiety headaches the day before.

    SO, if you DO use sedatives or anti-anxiety drugs, be extra careful and maybe have a 24-hour companion (or as close to it as you can) for a day or two after.

  71. elayne

    Sorry, should say “he remembers going to the bank and then coming immediately home.” When they pieced everything together later, there was about 45 minutes unaccounted for. If it’d been the man *I* was married to at that time, I’d be certain that he’d just been up to no good and was *claiming* amnesia, but for lots of reasons that would be too long and irrelevant to go into here, we’re sure that wasn’t the case with my dad. He also put the folded laundry into the freezer that afternoon, and emptied the silverware drawer into the sink. Bottom line: The cumulative effect of the medicine (he’d had three or four dental appointments within two weeks) really messed with his mind and memory. So be careful.

  72. Anna

    I haven’t been to a dentist in… I don’t know, 13 years? I didn’t even know nitrous was an option. Your post and the comments are really inspiring.

  73. Tom Green

    On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t watch Steve Martin’s movie, “Novocane.”

    I do self-hypnosis/relaxation techniques while waiting in the chair. I get so relaxed that I’m ready to fall asleep. I’ll also repeat a mantra while the dentist is working on me to distract myself from what’s going on.

    My dentist is really good at shots with little pain which helps the experience a lot. The shots used to be the worst part for me and I can’t believe I used to let the dentists drill without them when I was a kid.

    The dentist used to offer video glasses to wear while he was working on you so you could be distracted by watching a DVD. Though I really liked that, I was always annoyed that I’d never finish a movie there and would then have to rent or buy it to see how it ended.

  74. Sarah

    Switching dentists. As soon as I was able, I switched from the one my parents always took us to, who I was panic-ridden, horrified of, to the one the kids I sat for saw. I had taken them to the dentist before, and couldn’t believe how nice he was, how relaxed the kids were. So I switched, and now every cleaning is a cakewalk.

  75. Sheri Bheri

    I’m one of the lucky ones, I don’t have issues with the dentist (FTR my Mom made sure we had an AWESOME dentist growing up).

    But a dental dam really does make a difference.

    Also, they have a block that they can put in your mouth to help you hold it open. I find it less tiring to be able to rest my jaw on this block, instead of forcing my mouth open.

    One more thing, my Mom is allergic to the standard anesthetic Dentists use. She would have a panic attack in the chair, it would hardly numb her / take a huge amount to get her numb. A new (smarter / savvier) dentist spoke with her and they changed the anesthetic and it was a totally different experience for her. Please don’t wait until you’re in your fifties to figure this out!

  76. kathryn

    i always take the first available dental appointment of the day. the office is quiet and calm and on schedule, and i don’t have to spend the whole morning dreading the afternoon.

    i also sometimes buy myself a reward after a dental cleaning, for being so brave.

  77. Paula

    Nitrous Oxide all the way, baby!
    I too was having panic attacks just thinking about the possibility of seeing a dentist. I knew I had work to be done and the idea of going made me think I would surely die.
    I asked for Nitrous Oxide and found out it was only $30 out of pocket. WAY worth it. It didn’t knock me out (which would have been nice) but it relaxed me and made it bearable. Just remember to keep breathing through your nose so you get that wonderful gas.

  78. jen

    BANANAS!! no joke. i have always had to have novocaine administered repeatedly to get sufficiently numb. a dentist friend remarked that sometimes this is due to a person’s PH balance being acidic (i.e. more acidic, rather than alkaline, systems tend to be more resistant to the numbing agent). he said eat banana(s) the day before to shift my PH to be more alkaline. i figured nothing to lose, and ate one banana the day before my appt. the novocaine worked its magic with just one shot, and no need for multiples. may just be a coincidence, but you bet i’m eating bananas before every appt in the future!

  79. Cindy D.

    Ask for referrals from friends if you don’t like your dentists and SWITCH! As a child I had a horrible dentist who was rough and made every filling a nightmare. My parents thought I was being dramatic and of course,the dentist isn’t supposed to be pleasant. Flash forward – I didn’t see a dentist for close to 10 years as an adult! It took a few tries, but I got lucky and found 2 amazing, gentle, professional, really lovely dentists in my town and never hesitate to refer people to them. An abcessed tooth, 2 crowns and all my required cleanings later and I have NO anxiety about the dentist anymore.

  80. Becky

    I can’t talk or hear talk about the dentist without bursting into tears. However, it’s not exactly the fears you address. I fear that (since I haven’t been to see anyone in many years) that A. It will cost me more money than I can ever afford; and B. They will tell me that the neglect is so bad that’s it’s not fixable — that they’ll have to pull teeth and shake their heads sadly, while telling me IF I HAD ONLY GONE to the dentist, I could have prevented it all. Just typing this makes me shake. So I DON’T GO.

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