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3 Ways to Make Your Next Dental Procedure More Tolerable

3 Ways to Make Your Next Dental Procedure More TolerableI just got back from the dentist.

And I am so, so relieved that I am back from the dentist and no longer reclining in that chair. Stupid cavities. I hate them.

And yes — that photo above is me, today, reclining that that ever-hated dentist’s chair. How’d I pull that one off, you might ask? Well, when I’m nervous, I like to keep my cell phone in my hands.

It’s admittedly a safety behavior — merely holding my phone doesn’t save me from anything. It won’t stop a panic attack. It won’t cure nausea. It won’t slow down my heart rate. But it just feels good knowing that my teeny little digital portal to rest of the world is resting in my palm.

While the dentist was working, I raised the camera with my left hand and snapped that picture. Call it a distraction technique. And check out those sweet shades they gave me so that I wouldn’t get toothdust in my eyes. In combination with all of that dental stuff coming out of my mouth, I sort of look bionic.

The only reason I can find humor in this picture now is because it’s all over. Two hours ago, I was shaking and feeling tingles in my toes. I was freaked out that part of ear had gotten numb. I couldn’t handle the fact that my swallow reflex felt stunted. My heart was racing, my jaw was sore, and I was involuntarily flexing every muscle in my body.

A dental appointment is no field day. Especially for those of us with panic and anxiety disorders.

But you might be relieved to hear that there are a few things you can do to make your next appointment less nerve-wracking:

1. If you’re getting a cavity filled or any other kind of painful work done, request an epinephrine-free numbing agent. Many numbing agents include two main ingredients: an anesthetic (ending in “-caine”, like procaine) and epinephrine. Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) can kick-start the fight-or-flight response that us panic sufferers know all too well. And if you’re sensitive to physiological panic triggers like a rapid heartbeat or jitters, then a shot of the stuff may rev up your sensitive nervous system.

In my own experience, epi-free numbing agents are worth it. They tend to wear off a bit more quickly, so you might need a second shot halfway through your dental procedure. But I’ll take a second needle poke ANY day if it means I don’t need to deal with extra adrenaline. My body’s already quite skilled in producing its own. That’s enough to worry about while I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair.

2. Before the dentist starts working on your teeth, set up a signal system. It’s nearly impossible to communicate clearly when you’re laying on your back, mouth wide open, and trying to keep your tongue away from the drill and the suction device. But what if you need to sneeze? Or need to blow your nose? Or clear your throat? Or use the restroom? Or, what if you start to really panic? How to you communicate that to the dentist?

Establish some signals beforehand and make sure your dentist understands them. Here are a few of the ones that I like to use:

  • Hand signal: touching my nose. Meaning: “Hey, I need to blow my nose because I can’t breathe.”
  • Hand signal: tapping my chest. Meaning: “I’m really panicky and I need to sit up for a moment.”
  • Hand signal: touching my jaw. Meaning: “My jaw really hurts. Can I close it for a minute?”

Sure, all of this might sound silly, but just knowing that you can pause the procedure if necessary gives you a sense of control. And the greater your sense of control, the less likely you’ll panic.

3. Ask your dentist to narrate his or her activities. I had this great pediatric dentist when I was a teenager. Not only was he absurdly gentle, but he’d talk to me the entire time he was filling my cavities. As he placed each shiny metal instrument in my mouth, he explained what the object was, what it was for, and how he’d be using it on my tooth. And when drilling a cavity, he’d give me an approximate countdown to completion:

“Only about 30 more seconds,” he’d say, “and then I’ll switch to a finer drill so I can remove just one more tiny bit of decay. That finer drill will probably take about 45 seconds, so all of your drilling is going to be completely finished in less than two minutes! After that, you can let me know if you want a break to rinse or to let your jaw relax for a bit, okay?”

Knowing precisely what was going on and what was about to happen greatly reduced my uncertainty and made the cavity-filling experience a whole lot more comfortable. Even if you don’t have a pediatric dentist, you can always let him or her know that you’re afraid of dental procedures and it would make you a heck of a lot more comfortable if you knew what was going on for each step of the process.

A good dentist will be happy to accommodate the above requests.

3 Ways to Make Your Next Dental Procedure More Tolerable

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2012). 3 Ways to Make Your Next Dental Procedure More Tolerable. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Feb 2012
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