How To Get Through A Teeth Cleaning When You’re Terrified Of The Dentist

Photographed by Brayden Olson.
Whirring drills. Crying kids. Masked dentists shoving their gloved hands in your mouth. Chemical smells wafting through an office. For lots of people, going to the dentist is more like a scene from a horror film than a routine checkup, and it can cause intense and sometimes irrational feelings of fear.
Dental anxiety is very common, and can grow into a full-blown phobia for some people, says Ken Mazey, PhD, a clinical psychologist and contributing lecturer on the psychology of fears at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Dentistry. People with dental phobias might avoid going to the dentist altogether, he adds, which can cause a whole slew of other issues. But why are some people so sensitive to the dentist, while others are totally chill?
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"The reasons vary depending on the personality and experience of the person," Dr. Mazey says. You might have had a traumatic experience at the dentist as a child, which then sets the stage for an anxious reaction in the dentist office, he says. Or if your older sibling or parent always freaked out before the dentist, you could pick up on those anxieties and come to fear the same scenarios.
But even if you don't have a phobia-level fear, getting your teeth cleaned can feel like a violation of your sense of boundaries. "You have a stranger going into your mouth, poking around with all kinds of instruments, [while you're] in a reclined and vulnerable position," he says. "So the nature is intrusive and inherently anxiety-provoking — at least momentarily."
Luckily, there are some effective coping strategies that you can try the next time you're sequestered to the dentist chair. "Anxiety has a cognitive and emotional component, so coping strategies have to address the different levels of the response," Dr. Mazey says. "It's not an overnight thing, because you have to learn how to take care of yourself and integrate bad experiences in a way that won't haunt you," he says. And, triggers can be unpredictable, so learning to anticipate and react to them can take some time. But walking into the office armed with some techniques can be hugely helpful when your anxiety does strike.
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Be honest with your dentist.

Your dentist is not the devil, and has probably seen patients with this fear before. "You should always make an effort to be your own advocate and represent your issues and concerns," Dr. Mazey says. "Your practitioner has a responsibility to know and understand your history."

Let the people at the front desk, the dental hygienist, and your dentist know that you tend to have phobic responses, he suggests. "Everyone has to be involved in trying to create an environment tailored to the needs of the patient," he says. "It can become a complicated experience if the practitioner isn't empathic, or they ridicule you." If you feel like your dentist is on your side, it's easier to trust them, which can ultimately make you feel less anxious.
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Remember to breathe.

"Your first line of defense is to control your breathing," Dr. Mazey says. When you're anxious, you need to combine what's going on in your mind with what's happening in your body, and breathing does that quite well. Place your hands on your stomach and pause after each time you exhale, he suggests. Of course, it can feel difficult to breathe fully when you have someone's hands in your mouth, so it's a good idea to practice this before you get to the doctor, he says. Simply knowing that you're able to inhale and exhale can help.
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Stay positive.

If you spend all day thinking about how nervous you are for your appointment, then you're going to have a negative experience when you get there. Instead, you should try to convince yourself that you're going to have the best, most positive outcome imaginable, Dr. Mazey says. "You'll end up re-writing the script if you have an inner dialogue that says, I've been here before. This is a challenge, but I can handle it."
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Listen to something relaxing.

If you're having trouble relaxing or shifting your focus away from negative thoughts, it can be helpful to have a distraction, like music or a podcast, Dr. Mazey says. "Music takes you into another world, so you can focus on breathing and positive emotions," he says. Combined with other coping skills, just having one other stimulus to hold your attention can be enough to calm you down.
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Think about someone you admire.

Bolstering your sense of confidence can help combat anxiety or fear, Dr. Mazey says. For some people, thinking about something or someone who you admire or who inspires you can help manage feelings of anxiety, he says. For example, if you love Justin Bieber, you might think about how he once survived a chipped tooth and posted all about the experience on his Instagram. Maybe imagining that toothpaste-commercial smile is enough to get your butt in the chair, but it doesn't have to be tooth-related. "Anything non-material that's a source of inspiration and coherence works, it could be music, art, or religion," he says. Say a little prayer, if that's what works for you — and know you won't be there all day so, somehow, you'll get to the other side.
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