How to Help Your Patients to Overcome Dental Anxiety

Published: July 1, 2022, Last Updated: February 2, 2024

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Writer: Martha Pierson
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Editor: Anais Osipova
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Reviewer: Michael Needham

According to a study, between 50% to 80% of adults in the United States have some degree of dental anxiety. Unsurprisingly, fear and anxiety toward dentists and dental treatments contribute to the avoidance of receiving dental care. In fact, the same study showed that more than 20% of dentally anxious patients avoid visiting the dentist regularly, and 9% to 15% avoid dental care altogether. Given these issues, it is clear that dental offices should aim at alleviating anxiety in patients and help reduce avoidance behavior.

In this article, we will explain what dental anxiety is, its causes and symptoms, and explain seven ways to help your patients overcome dental anxiety.

What is Dental Anxiety?

Dental patient with anxiety

Dental anxiety is a condition that manifests in many ways. It can cause your patients to feel uneasy at your office or even make them avoid coming in at all. Consequently, this behavior may result in bad oral health with missing or decayed teeth and poor periodontal status.

Therefore, most anxious individuals only visit a dental office in acute emergencies that can require complicated and traumatic treatment procedures. This, in turn, further exacerbates and reinforces their anxiety, leading to possible complete avoidance in the future, creating a vicious cycle of dental fear and anxiety.

Dental anxiety may also be problematic to the dental clinic because anxious patients can be irritable and uncooperative and have a greater pain response. Consequently, treating patients with dental anxiety can be stressful and may result in an unpleasant experience.

What Are the Symptoms of Dental Anxiety?

There are many symptoms of dental anxiety. However, here are the most common ones:

  • Muscle tightness
  • Unsteady hands
  • Restlessness
  • Clearing the throat
  • Sweating of the palms, forehead, and upper lip
  • Heavy respiration
  • Stiff posture
  • Holding things tightly
  • Strong startle response
  • Hyperactivity
  • Rushing
  • Irritation with delays
  • Blushing
  • Getting tongue-tied
  • Avoiding people
  • Poor memory
  • Confusion
  • Stumbling over words
  • Sitting on the edge of the chair, leaning forward
  • Rapidly thumbing through magazines
  • Pacing
  • Inattentiveness
  • Excessive worrying
  • Outburst of emotions

What are the Reasons for Dental Anxiety?

Dental anxiety can arise from multiple factors. However, a past negative or traumatic dental experience is the most prominent predictor of dental anxiety. People who have had a painful or embarrassing dental experience are more likely to have dental anxiety in the future.

Moreover, extreme helplessness, lack of control, lack of trust, fear of betrayal, fear of being ridiculed, fear of the unknown, fear of choking and gagging, and lack of understanding during dental treatment are also highly correlated with dental anxiety.

Similarly, those who have experienced extreme pain after dental work can also suffer from psychological trauma, leading to fear of dentists.

Sometimes, the high cost of dental care may also cause dental anxiety leading patients to avoid visiting the dentist.

Lastly, anxiety can be provoked by sensory triggers such as the sight of needles, sounds of drilling, and the smell of eugenol and cut dentine.

7 Ways to Help Your Patients Deal with Dental Anxiety

Smiling dental patient

Dental anxiety is a frequently encountered problem in dental clinics. Therefore, dentists and dental staff need to practice effective ways to alleviate anxiety and help patients overcome their fears. Moreover, dentists and their teams must ensure that they positively motivate anxious patients. Here are seven ways to effectively manage, treat, and encourage patients with dental anxiety:

Establish a Professional Relationship to Develop Trust

When working with patients with dental anxiety, building a relationship through proper communication is key to relieving dental stress and gaining the patient’s trust. Dentists should aim to listen to their patient’s concerns and make them feel welcome and relaxed.

Verbally checking on the anxious person before, during, and after the procedure is another way to establish a relationship and empathize with their anxiety. In addition, doing so can encourage customer loyalty. It is also best to avoid negative phrasing and keep patients informed throughout the process.

An effective way to gain trust is the “tell-show-do” technique. This involves providing patients with verbal explanations of the overall procedure and all the steps along the way, demonstrating how the process will be done, and then completing the dental practice as you explained and showed. Even though the patient may not completely understand the medical accuracy, doing so reassures them that you are knowledgeable and reliable.

Give Your Patients a Sense of Control and Offer Distractions

Giving patients with dental anxiety control over the procedure is another effective way to help them.

For example:

  • You could allow your patient to decide when work begins by asking them to let you know when they are ready instead of ordering them to open their mouth.
  • Another way to give them a sense of control is to ask them to hold the saliva suction.
  • Encouraging patients to express when they need a break is also another way to enable anxious patients to control the pace of the procedure.
  • Offering distractions is another way to allow anxious patients to gain control over their appointment. For example, you can equip the dental chair with a TV, play calming music throughout the clinic, or encourage your patients to bring their headphones and playlist during the appointment to alleviate the stress.

Offer Pre-Treatment Sessions Whenever Possible

Offering pre-treatment sessions for anxious patients before the treatment is a great way to get them acquainted with the dental chair and alleviate anxiety. This is also a good time for the dentist to clearly explain the procedure to the patient and answer all their questions.

Schedule Them in the Morning and Minimize Time in the Waiting Room

It is best to schedule patients with dental anxiety in the morning to avoid allowing them time to worry and increase their anxiety. The same logic applies in the waiting room when the patient arrives at the office. Try to seat anxious patients as soon as they arrive at the dental clinic to avoid the patient fretting in the waiting room.

Create a Calming Environment

The dental clinic’s environment can play a significant role in reducing or encouraging dental anxiety. Therefore, it is recommended to create a calm and inviting ambience to reverse the effect of the sound of a drill or the smell of eugenol. Moreover, scent is the sense most tied to memory, and masking strong odors within a dental office is recommended for patients with dental anxiety from previous negative experiences.

Some ways of creating a calming environment include:

  • Having plants
  • Using a diffuser with stress-relief essential oils
  • Avoiding harsh, sterile lighting
  • Playing soft music
  • Including reading options on waiting room tables
  • Closing doors to help mask smells and sounds
  • Offering beverages

Ensure Cleanliness

Building a professional relationship is not enough to gain your patients’ trust. Visual cues are also essential in creating a reliable atmosphere for your anxious patients. Therefore, make sure your clinic is clean and sterilized equipment is visible. Moreover, make sure your uniform and lab coats are sparkly clean because old and dirty uniforms are discouraging and portray an unreliable image. Lastly, pick calming colors when using scrubs to help alleviate your patient’s anxiety.

Offer Financial Support

Many worry about their upcoming dental visits because of the treatment’s cost. Even if the patient has a dental insurance plan, not all procedures are fully covered. This causes many people to put off their dental care leading to worse problems in the future.

Dental financing options for patients can offer flexible payment plans. In turn, your patients can get the services they need immediately while paying for the care in installments over time. As a result, dental financing can alleviate your patients’ anxiety and encourage them to book an appointment.


Dental anxiety can be harmful to patients and dentists. On the other hand, empathizing with your patients can help alleviate their discomfort and fear.

Martha Pierson

Content CreatorMartha Pierson is a marketing strategist and business development expert based in Glendale, California. As a content creator for the Finturf blog, Martha shares her vast knowledge and experience with readers to help them build and sustain successful businesses. Her articles offer practical tips and actionable advice that entrepreneurs can implement immediately to achieve their goals. Martha also provides insightful analysis of current trends across different industries and offers expert guidance on how businesses can adapt to changing market conditions.

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