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How to manage your fear of the dentist

Alexis Dobranowski never loved going to the dentist. And then a very traumatic experience in her teens became the proverbial nail in the coffin.

“The dental surgeon removing my wisdom teeth wasn’t great,” she recalls. “And then on the way home my mom stopped by the grocery store. I was sitting in the car and my stitches burst, so I had blood dripping down my shirt. We had to drive back to the dentist and she flagged down a nurse in the parking lot. They took me in and I had to get that big giant needle again and have the stitches redone,” she says.

“Then they got infected. It was pretty terrible.”

Alexis also had braces for about four years, forever solidifying the link between dental work and pain in her mind.

Now in her thirties, Alexis still finds it anxiety provoking to even book a dental appointment, so she often puts it off for years.

“The last time I went was because I had a sore tooth and I decided enough is enough, you’ve got to go. And once I get there it’s OK, but it’s the idea of having to get there and lying awake the night before worrying about it.”

Tips for managing your fear of the dentist

As an anesthesiologist in Sunnybrook’s Department of Dentistry, Dr. Carilynne Yarascavitch’s specialty is helping people who can’t cope with their fears.

She says about one in five people have some fear of going to the dentist, often stemming from a traumatic experience. But she says even general life anxiety can manifest into fear of the dental chair. Many of these people cancel appointments or avoid dental visits altogether. And for those who do come in, it’s often when a dental issue is far more advanced and harder to treat.

The good news is, there are many ways to help manage and even overcome a fear of the dentist. Dr. Yarascavitch says the first step is to clearly communicate with your dental team what you are afraid of. Is it the sights, sounds, the equipment or being positioned in a chair that can invoke feelings of vulnerability? The more detail the dental team has, the better and more effective a plan of action can be. And if you’ve tried that and still feel uncomfortable, it could be time to find a new dentist.

First and foremost, patients need to be heard and understood. “One of the best ways to cope is trying to establish control, so either hand signals or some sort of method to let your dentist know when you might need a break or need to say something,” says Dr. Yarascavitch.

Some other techniques include:

  • deep breathing during times of particular stress
  • distraction through music, podcasts or video
  • discussing medication and sedation options that might be right for you.

And for all parents out there, Dr. Yarascavitch  recommends finding a child-friendly dentist that can make early visits pleasant ones.

Looking at the situation realistically, and not emotionally, can also help. “Dental procedures have come a long way. So even root canal is mostly boring. It just takes a long time,” she says. And know that routine dental care is a critical part of your overall health. Cavities, gum disease, early signs of oral cancer and other abnormalities of the mouth, neck and face are all on the radar during a dental exam.

Alexis says she’s motivated to go more often because of the strong link between oral and overall health. But just in case, she’s brushing and flossing diligently every day. That ounce of prevention may buy her just a bit more time between visits.

Tips to overcome your fear of the dentist infographic
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Overcoming your fear of the dentist: 6 steps to give you something to smile about

  1. Talk to your dental team about your specific fears
  2. Remember that many dental procedures are now relatively pain-free
  3. Establish control through hand signals so your dentist knows when to stop
  4. Distractions like music, podcasts or videos can be very effective
  5. Ask about medications that can help sedate or relax you during the visit
  6. Deep breathing during unpleasant moments can be calming

Brought to you by: Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre


About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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