Fear of the dentist – what causes it and how to overcome it

fear of the dentist

Fear of the dentist isn’t just something that everyone puts to the side and gets on with. It’s a real phobia which affects millions of people around the world and can in some cases, result in serious health consequences.

How many people are affected?

It’s estimated that three out of four people experience some degree of fear of the dentist. That includes people who are mildly anxious about going right through to severely stressed.

Around 20% of people avoid the dentist and only go if absolutely necessary, and somewhere between 5-10% of people have a genuine phobia of the dentist and never go at all!

Women tend to be more fearful than men, and that fear seems to dissipate as we get older.

Woman scared of the dentist

Is fear of the dentist really a phobia?

Yes and no.

Phobias are an irrational fear of something; usually an object or a situation. Dentophobia (or sometimes odontophobia) is a fear of the dentist or dental procedures.

While there are undoubtedly people who suffer from this phobia, the vast majority of people who get stressed, do so because of previous experiences.

This is actually a form of PTSD, and not a phobia.

A painful or traumatic visit to the dentist, especially at an early age, can create a healthy fear. It’s your brain’s way of saying “That hurt, let’s not do that again!”

Although this doesn’t explain the high percentage of people who feel anxious going to the dentist – not everyone has had a traumatic experience.

Socially conditioned to fear the dentist

Part of the problem is the way dentists are negatively portrayed in our society.

From horror movies to cartoons, a visit to the dentist is synonymous with pain. We pick this connection up from a young age, and as we grow, this leads to a genuine fear, usually starting in adolescence.

This fear can even be passed from one person to another, much like a virus.

Just hearing about someone’s traumatic experience can be enough for you to subconsciously decide it’s not going to happen to you, and so the fear is seeded without you even realising.

A young man feels toothache over dark background.

Consequences of not going to the dentist

The problem with avoiding the dentist is obvious.

Oral hygiene isn’t just about dodging bad breath – your teeth and gums are an important part of your body, just like your liver or stomach.

Avoiding the dentist when you have a toothache is akin to avoiding the doctor when you have heart palpitations.

Serious situations like an abscess can quickly turn into a major medical problem, and in some cases require extensive surgery.

Putting off a visit to the dentist also creates a vicious cycle. As a person’s teeth get worse, this adds to the fear and embarrassment of going, and so becomes another reason not to go.

What you can do to overcome your fear

Fear of the dentist is almost 100% psychological.

The pain involved in the dentist’s chair is no-where near as bad as people expect, nor even remember. The real fear comes from the perceived lack of control patients experience.

The physical act of lying down in a vulnerable position, where you can hardly move, talk or even respond is enough to trigger stress hormones. Sometimes just thinking about it is enough to cause real anxiety.

If you want to give yourself every advantage by going to the dentist, then there are a few simple tricks you can use:

Emotional support

Bring someone with you. Someone you trust and who has no problem going to the dentist. We all need someone to hold our hands through tough times – sometimes literally. Ask if your friend can sit with you during treatment if your phobia is that bad.


Take your mind off treatment and focus on something else. Bring in a pair of headphones and listen to some music, your dentist won’t mind. Many treatment rooms will have a TV for the patients to watch. Find something to distract your brain.

Deliberate relaxation

Meditation can help a lot in stressful situations. Deep, controlled breaths will slow your heartbeat and help you relax. Different meditative techniques offer different solutions. Progressive muscle relaxation for example, is a technique which involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in turn.

Talk to your dentist

This may seem obvious, but for many, it’s the last thing they want to do. By simply talking to your dentist, you can alleviate many fears and concerns. They can discuss with you the procedure, what’s involved and any sedation options available.

holding patient's hand

How we can help

At SDAI, we pledge to value our patients and their needs above all else.

We understand that the fear associated with the dentist is a very real thing for many people, and we do everything we can to make you comfortable, relaxed and have a full understanding of what’s going on.

Many peoples’ fear stems from experiences where dentists were considered uncaring, impersonal or cold.

We do everything we can here to avoid labels like that, and our long list of returning patients shows how seriously we take our relationships.

We follow the same rules here as we would in all our personal lives -respect, integrity and honesty are the foundations for long-lasting and valuable relationships with our patients.

Call us today if you have any questions about what we do or how we do it.

And if you have a fear of the dentist, let us help you get over it. Our friendly and experienced staff will be happy to answer any questions you may have.