Harvard Mental Health Letter

Managing dental phobia

Surveys report that 13% to 24% of people are afraid of going to the dentist. In most cases, dental anxiety is unpleasant but does not interfere with health. People whose dental fear is severe, however, may so dread the thought of going to the dentist that they cancel appointments, delay seeking care, and sometimes wind up needing more invasive and painful procedures as a result. About half of adults who suffer from dental phobia can trace their fears back to unpleasant childhood experiences — memories that may be triggered at the sight of a dentist's chair, the sound of a dental drill, or the smell of antiseptic chemicals. Although medications such as diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan) may help reduce anxiety, they are best used in conjunction with various cognitive, educational, and behavioral strategies — especially those that help patients gain a sense of control in a situation where they may feel helpless. The following techniques are easy to learn, get better with practice, and can be combined during a dental visit.
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