How to Relieve Dental Anxiety

Dental anxiety is one of the most common phobias among adults and children in the United States. Given the needles, syringes, and drills so common in dentists’ offices, it’s easy to understand why the equipment and setting might trigger panic in certain individuals. Fortunately, there are many healthy and effective ways to mitigate a sense of anxiety at the dentist. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the symptoms of dental anxiety and what causes it, and we’ll end with three ways of coping with unwanted emotions at the dentist. Fear of dental environments doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the health of your smile!

How to identify dental anxiety

Dental anxiety broadly refers to the negative emotions that can manifest in a dental environment, including fear, anxiety, panic, and stress. If symptoms are severe enough, patients may avoid going to the dentist altogether, thereby sacrificing their oral health in order to avoid a sense of psychological malaise. 

If you experience any of the following symptoms or sensations, you may be experiencing dental anxiety:


-rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)

-sensation of an irregular heartbeat (palpitations)

-lightheadedness or fainting 

-fear of an impending danger or doom (signs of panic)

-shaking hands

If you believe that you or someone you know is suffering from dental anxiety, know that it is very common and nothing to be ashamed of.

What causes dental anxiety

It’s not always easy to say what causes dental anxiety. Sometimes it is brought on by memories of a past traumatic experience, which may or may not have occurred at the dentist. Often times, trauma may be linked to previous negative interactions with healthcare providers, to a past injury to the upper body, or even to a history of abuse and subsequent distrust of persons of authority. 

Some people have difficulty with the nature of the patient-dentist relationship, feeling that the dynamic forces them to sacrifice control and autonomy over their own body. Others have co-existing conditions like generalized anxiety or claustrophobia, and these are exacerbated by the stress-inducing dental environment.

Regardless of the precise causes of an individual’s anxiety at the dentist, it is important to validate the condition, acknowledge the emotions, and develop a strategy for managing the stress so that physical health is not compromised.

How to manage dental anxiety

There are many proven and effective ways to deal with anxiety whether generalized, social, or location-specific. Some methods use mental exercises, some use physical relaxation techniques, and some involve the use of medication. 

Mental Coping Skills


Meditation is a powerful exercise in mental focus that involves concentrating on one or very few things, such as a mantra or one’s breathing patterns. By zeroing in all of one’s mental energy on a singular point — or no point at all —many individuals find that they can detach themselves from their negative emotions and fears, gain a greater sense of self-control, and even feel relaxed.

Visual Imagery

Visual imagery is a form of mental visualization. Some people might have heard this technique referred to as “going to a happy place,” but for individuals with dental anxiety, visual imagery is much more impactful than a casual trip down memory lane. Through self-training or working with a psychologist, anxious patients can find visual imagery exercises that give them a sense of tranquility or well-being. This may involve imagining a favorite spot in nature, a favorite childhood memory, or picturing a series of objects to which one has no emotional connection.


Distraction tends to be one of the first coping skills introduced when an individual is struggling with anxiety because it is easily understood and can be implemented in any situation. As the name suggests, distraction is based on the concept of redirecting one’s attention to stimuli outside of oneself. This may mean trying to identify a certain number of colors, sounds, or smells in the room or it may involve tangible tools like a coloring book or beaded bracelet. One of the most effective ways to successfully use distraction as a coping skill is to find a sensory point of focus that can hold your attention without overstimulating or stressing you out.

Physical Coping Skills

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

There seem to be a wider range of mental coping skills for anxiety, but there are still many effective physical tools as well. One of the most popular and effective is called progressive muscle relaxation.

Often abbreviated as PMR, this method involves a series of “progressive” movements throughout the body in which one tenses up and releases muscle groups. The buildup of blood and oxygen in the activated muscles can produce a calming, warming effect similar to that of an exercise-induced endorphin rush, or it may be a cathartic channel for the excessive energy brought on by the body’s stress response. 

For a helpful guide on PMR, see this guide from the University of Michigan.

Medication-based Options

If neither mental or physical coping methods prove effective for managing dental anxiety, a patient’s best option is medication. Usually this is the last resort, but given the prevalence and intensity of anxiety and panic attacks, medication is an increasingly popular option for managing such conditions.

Sedation dentistry

Sedation dentistry offers medication-based treatment to patients who suffer from dental anxiety. The process involves administration of sedative drugs that cause the patient to lose consciousness or feel extremely drowsy and calm, but not so “foggy” that they are unable to be roused and awakened. 

There are several kinds of sedation dentistry, ranging from minimal to deep sedation. Depending on your symptoms and individual needs, only a moderate sedative may be necessary, whereas other individuals may need to be put into a state of unconsciousness. 


Dental anxiety is a very common and difficult condition, but it is possible to overcome and there are many ways of finding a treatment to effectively manage the condition. 

If you or someone you know has foregone dental treatment due to fear, anxiety, stress, or panic surrounding the dentist, Federal Hill Smiles is here to help. Our team of compassionate professionals understands that going to the dentist is not an easy process for all patients, and we want to make sure everyone who visits our clinic feels completely at ease before undergoing any procedures. 

Federal Hill Smiles is the Baltimore dentistry that cares. Contact us today to schedule a no-pressure appointment.