While sitting in the dentist’s chair, have you ever thought, “I’m being so brave”—only to realize that you’re clutching the armrests so hard that your hands are cramped?

No matter how advanced dental technology has become, roughly 20% of people have some degree of dental fear, according to estimates from the Dental Fears Research Clinic at the University of Washington in Seattle.

But if you fall into that category, you can breathe easier because a new study has found that using a variety of simple strategies can help you kiss dental dread goodbye.


To learn the latest on overcoming fear of the dentist, I called Jenny Bernson, LDS, doctoral student at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, because she recently completed a study on the topic.

In the study, researchers distributed a questionnaire to individuals who had been to the dentist in the past but who had developed full-blown dental phobia and had not gone for regular dental treatment in at least the past three years…and to patients who were fearful of the dentist but were still undergoing regular dental care. All of the patients were asked to describe whatever “coping strategies” they had used to deal with their dental fears.

Then researchers looked at the coping strategies used by those who had regular dental care (those were considered “successful” strategies) and the coping strategies used by those who did not have regular dental care (those were considered “unsuccessful” strategies).

Here’s what was successful and what wasn’t…

The strategy that did not work:

  • Prayer: Asking a higher power to make the dental treatment end quickly or to make the anxiety disappear did not make any of the subjects feel less fear.

The strategies that helped a little bit:

  • Self-efficacy: This strategy involves tricking yourself or giving yourself a pep talk. Subjects tried to tell themselves that either their fear didn’t exist or that the fear existed but they were strong enough to handle it.
  • Self-distraction: The key to this method is thinking of anything but what the dentist is doing. For instance, participants thought about their best friends, counted or listened to music.
  • Distancing: To do this, try pretending that what the dentist is doing is not happening to your body—but that it’s happening to someone else’s. Or convince yourself that you’re not feeling pain, only numbness..

The strategy that helped the most:

  • Optimism: Instead of focusing on the present moment (the pain or potential pain), you think only about how great you will feel after the dental treatment is over—how relaxed and proud of yourself you’ll be. Somehow, this mental focus on a happier, brighter future—even if that future is only an hour away!—is a powerful way for patients to reduce their fear and improve the experience of going to the dentist.

I can add a nice twist to this fear-squashing technique: Plan something really fun to do after your appointment, whether it’s buying an ice cream soda, seeing a movie with a close friend or even getting a massage—and imagine how good you’ll feel doing that.