Senior Health

5/10/2022 | By Howard LeWine, M.D.

The experts at Harvard Medical School suggest five techniques for taming dental phobia, to help ensure that you calm your fear and get the important care from your dentist that you need.


I hate going to the dentist. I get anxious just thinking about it. I have a cavity that I know needs fixing. What do you suggest?


People openly talk about phobias like fear of heights or spiders, but dental phobia may be even more common.

People with dental fear 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.

Taming dental phobia

Here are some dental phobia combating techniques to practice and then use as soon as you get into the dental chair.

dental team hovering over patient photo by Anatoliygleb Dreamstime. These techniques for taming dental phobia help ensure that you calm your fear and get the important care from your dentist that you need.

1. Breathing techniques

Physical tension and emotional stress can actually make us more sensitive to pain. Deep breathing can reduce physical and mental tension. Breathe in slowly and count to five before exhaling to another count of five. Or place one hand beneath the belly button, and breathe in so that the abdomen rises and falls as you breathe out.

2. Muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and then releasing one group of muscles at a time in order to promote whole-body relaxation) can help to slow heart rate and promote calmness. Just a few minutes of progressive muscle relaxation, focused on two or three major muscle groups, may help during an appointment.

3. Desensitization

This approach combines deep breathing and relaxation with gradual exposure (through videos or your own imagination) to the cue that most triggers dental phobia. A patient who is afraid of needles, for example, may look at pictures of a dentist’s needle in a safe environment, such as at home or in a therapist’s office, while practicing relaxation and breathing techniques. The goal is to help you learn to relax while confronting whatever triggers your dental fear.

4. Distraction

Focusing your mind elsewhere is another way to feel less anxiety and pain during dental visits. It may help to listen to music through headphones. Some people need a more complicated task to distract them. Stories or riddles may help distract children. Adults can try counting (such as tiles on the ceiling, or slats on a window blind) as a way of turning attention away from the procedure itself.

5. Anti-anxiety medicine

An additional option is to ask your dentist or primary care physician for a prescription of a low dose anti-anxiety medicine, such as lorazepam (Ativan) to take prior to the visit. Have someone drive you to the appointment if you do.

Dentists today take pride in making patients comfortable before they start working on their teeth. Be open about your anxiety and your dentist will be ready to help.

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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit