Overcoming Dental Anxiety

Dental anxiety affects many people of all ages but there are some successful strategies that both the patient and the dentist can practice to overcome it.

If someone has real dental anxiety, what are some symptoms they exhibit and how severe can they be?

Dr. John Vitale: People who have anxiety about going to the dentist generally exhibit all sorts of different behavioral patterns. Some exhibit fear when they come to the office. Some people keep quiet like clams; they don’t open their mouth and they give you very little information. Just their demeanor in the chair can tell you whether they are afraid or not. And it is a very, very serious problem, because depending on what individual you are treating, the severity range can be from very mild to extremely severe, and very difficult to treat.

What are the most common aspects of a dental visit that people are most anxious about?

Dr. John Vitale: I think with older people, they generally are anxious about just being in the dental office because of an experience in a dental office when they were children. That is a primary aspect that people are most anxious about, with the older people. For the younger people, it’s generally fear of seeing a needle or a syringe, maybe the noise from a dental unit, different things like that. But for the older people, it’s generally an experience from when they were very, very young.

How important is it to sit down and speak to the dentist about your fears or concerns?

Dr. John Vitale: I think it is extremely important, and I think it is also extremely important for a dentist to realize what the patient is going through. Again, they all exhibit different types of behavior, and the dentist should be attuned to these different factors. I think it is very, very important for the dentist to talk to this person and put the person at ease, whether it be a he or a she or a child or an older person, and develop a level of comfort with the person.

Do you have a particular strategy for helping your patients cope with their dental anxiety?

Dr. John Vitale: I do. I find that approaching an individual in a very informal manner is important. I don’t wear a clinical gown when I go into a room. I generally look like the guy next door. I try to talk to the person a whole lot before I do anything. I am not as interested in performing any type of procedure unless it is absolutely necessary at that time, like if a person is in pain or something, but rather to get to know the person and to develop some sort of a bond with the person, make them feel at home, make them feel like they belong there, like they’re part of the family.

Once you do that, once you exhibit or develop this trust with the patient, it generally becomes a lot easier every single time the person comes in thereafter, so much so that to the point that after three or four visits, they come in and, “Hi, how are you?” and “How’s it going?”, and they talk about everyday experiences. It’s not so much about the dentistry anymore, and that’s the point in time that you want with your patient, you know.

Lastly, what are some other ways dentists can help patients overcome their dental anxiety?

Dr. John Vitale: I think the most important way that you could help a patient overcome a dental anxiety is to have them trust you. You have to be honest with the person. When you tell a person, like for instance, a child, or you mention needles, “This needle is not going to hurt.” Well, you violated a couple of laws right there. Number one, hurt, number two, needle, okay? The honest thing to tell a little kid would be, “Listen, this is going to pinch you like a mosquito. Can I have your arm for a second?”, and you pinch them, and you say, “Did that really bother you? No? Okay, well, that’s what it is going to feel like in the mouth, and you know what? If you stay real, real still and you close your eyes, you won’t even know when it happens.”

Then when that event does take place and what you say is going to happen does happen, well, your patient trusts you, and that is the most important thing you can convey to a person, and it’s your trust. You have to be honest with people.

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