People with dental phobias have a reflex to feel a fight-or-flight response when they visit the dentist, explained New York City-based dentist Dr. Louis Siegelman, D.D.S., who works in private practice and also is a clinical assistant professor in pediatric dentistry at New York University.

“It’s life or death, it’s fight for your life or run for your life,” he told HuffPost. “That’s really what the core of this mechanism is.”

About five percent of people have severe dental fear, according to researchers from the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Those researchers found five strategies that people use to get over their fear of the dentist.

Their study showed that common coping practices include distracting yourself (counting to yourself or playing mental games so that you think about something else), distancing (telling yourself the pain feels like something else), prayer (praying that the dental treatment will end soon), self-efficacy (telling yourself to be strong), and optimism (telling yourself that everything will be OK after the dental treatment).

Of course, the best way to avoid having to have scary procedures done at the dentist is to practice prevention, Siegelman said. If you know that you’re someone who’s afraid of the dentist, it would best serve you to “be hyper-vigilant about taking care of your teeth to make sure there’s less for them

[the dentists] to do,” he said.

Here are some common things that people are afraid of during a dental visit, and what you and the dentist can do to help soothe those fears:

1. Fear Of The Unknown

When Siegelman receives a new patient, he often doesn’t jump right into the cleaning or dental procedure in the first visit. Instead, he sits with the new patient in his office — with the door open, so there’s no feelings of claustrophobia — just to talk, so the patient can get to know him first. 

Siegelman said that other people with milder dental phobia can also ask to meet with their dentist first to help quell fears. While not all dentists may not have the luxury of time to be able to do this, it’s worth asking a dentist before scheduling an appointment if you think it will help you feel more at ease, he said.

2. Fear Of Dental Equipment

Sometimes, the scariest part of the dental visit is having those strange, sharp, metal tools stuck into your mouth.  “I think it’s an instinctive thing not to like noisy, sharp, piercing metallic things,” Siegelman said.

What can help ease this fear is to ask to hold the tools first, just so they don’t seem so foreign, he suggested.

3. Sensitive Gag Reflex

People with a sensitive gag reflex may loathe the part of the dentist’s visit where those tabs are put in the mouth for the dental X-ray. These days, newer dentist offices offer panoramic X-rays, Siegelman said.

4. The Dentist seems Ominous

Find a dentist with a sense of humor! A study published in the European Journal of Oral Science showed that empathy and humor are big factors in reducing dental fear.

“Psychological barriers can be broken down by humor, both as a result of the patient and the dentist coming together more as equals, and as a result of humor reducing stress, increasing well-being and creating a pleasant atmosphere,” study researcher Jenny Bernson, of the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, said in a statement. 

While humor is a great tactic to help a patient feel more at ease, Siegelman said that it’s important that a dentist have a good grasp of the patient’s sense of humor, or else it could backfire. 

“Absolutely, humor is great for anxiety, without question,” Siegelman said.  “I just think that it’s a tough play — not every patient has a great sense of humor, and not every dentist has a great sense of humor.” 

5. Fear of Loud Noises

Those dental tools can be really loud, and the noise can stir up fear in some people, Siegelman said. So, he recommends that these people wear earplugs or noice-canceling headphones to block out the sound.

6. Fealing Uncomfertable Lying Back in a Dentist Chair

Some people may be uncomfortable with something as simple as lying back in the dentist’s chair, due to a bad back or some control issues, Siegelman said. A simple remedy may be for the dentist to only put the patient half-back so that it’s more comfortable. Or, a dentist could provide positioning pillows for people who feel aches and pains for being in a laid-back position.

7. Unable to Breath Through the Nose

Are you a mouth-breather, who feels like you’re being stifled if you can only breathe through your nose? That could be an issue at a dentist visit, where the dentist must work in the mouth, which can make mouth-breathing hard.

Siegelman recommends nasal strips for patients to help them breathe through their nose. Or, nitrous oxide could help people relax and breathe better — it all depends on the situation, he said. 

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