Breaking Down Dental Anxiety
Heights, spiders and the dentist are commonly listed when people talk about their biggest fears. While all fears are valid, the latter of the three is very manageable when addressed with a caring approach from dental practitioners. Fear of the dentist is better understood as dental anxiety. Many people struggle with anxiety in different aspects of their lives, as it is a completely normal feeling. However, when this anxiety leads people to avoid a crucial part of healthcare, such as going to the dentist, it is important to understand, as practitioners, how we can mitigate patient anxiety. Different aspects of dental anxiety can affect all ages and walks of life, so it is important to have various techniques on hand that can effectively instill comfort in nervous patients to ensure they get the care they need. Below are five proven methods for diffusing patient anxiety that you can implement in your practice.
5 Techniques for Combating Patient Anxiety
#1 Explain Procedures in Full Detail
Another common fear is the unknown. This intersects directly with patient anxiety as dentistry is complicated, and many patients don’t understand problems with their oral health to the fullest extent. For this reason, it is important to ensure you are clear and transparent with patients about the procedure, everything from standard cleanings to extractions. Be sure to explain processes and procedures to patients in simple terms they can understand. For example, instead of saying hardened calculus, use the more common term ‘plaque’ to refer to any buildup on a patient’s teeth.
Additionally, show them exactly which tools you will use and how they will be maneuvered in the mouth. You can even tell the patient the names of each tool to warn them when you will be using what during the procedure. Most importantly, give them a timeline of how long the procedure will take and update them on how long they have left as it progresses. A simple “halfway there” can go a long way in soothing anxiety mid-treatment. Lastly, decide on an easy hand signal that the patient can use to indicate they want to take a break. As patients cannot communicate well verbally during procedures, this will help them feel more in control and, therefore, at ease.
#2 Practice Breathing Exercises With Patients
One of the best exercises for combating anxieties of all types is breathing exercises. Anxiety lives in the nervous system, which controls the body’s involuntary functions, such as a racing heartbeat and spiked blood pressure. Making deliberate changes in breathing patterns can help to calm the nervous system, which in turn will reduce the systems of anxiety that the patient is feeling, such as sweating and an increased heartbeat.
When the patient is in the chair, try having the patient practice inhaling deeply in and out of their nose. Using a nose-based breathing technique is helpful as it can be hard to breathe through the mouth while having a dental procedure done. To reduce the heart rate specifically, have them breathe in for five seconds, hold that breath in for five seconds, exhale for five seconds and hold for five seconds before inhaling again. Remember to allow breathing breaks anytime a patient feels overwhelmed during their appointment.
#3 Allow Guests in the Room When Possible
Even with concerted efforts to make your patient feel comfortable in your presence, having a loved one in the room is often much more comforting. Children especially struggle with being in new spaces without a parent or guardian. However, this is not isolated to the younger age group, as many feel more comfortable holding a familiar face and hand during nerve-racking events. Therefore, when possible, allow your patient to come with a guest willing to sit chairside or in the room while they have their dental work done. When not possible, it can be helpful to have an assistant send updates to the waiting room and even allow the support person to come to the door to check in every once in a while.
Practitioners should be aware that there may be heightened anxiety for people when they have to be alone in the room, and they should prepare accordingly with other methods to de-escalate a patient’s nerves.
#4 Build Trust Through Open and Honest Communication
While most people with good oral health only have to visit the dentist 1-2 times a year, you still want to ensure they do not dread their appointment. Building patient trust in the long term is the foundation for soothing their anxieties about coming to the dentist. Ensure everyone in your practice maintains personable and has open communication with patients. This is especially important to implement among your administrative team as they are patients’ primary point of contact when they leave the office. Avoid moving patient appointments at the last minute, as this can create more anxiety for the patient.
When they do arrive for their appointment, make an effort to connect with them on a personal level. Knowing your patient’s personal life can help you to understand their health better and therefore provide better care. People can be shy to open up to strangers when they are nervous, so try starting conversations by sharing personal anecdotes about yourself to find shared interests and make them feel more comfortable speaking with you about their health.
#5 Positive Reinforcement
It is well known that positive reinforcement can go a long way in encouraging good behaviour in many different settings. It is certainly true in the case of patient oral care. When dissecting a patient’s oral health status and offering oral health education, it is important to focus on the areas where improvement is needed and highlight what the patient is doing well. Many of those with dental anxiety avoid the dentist and may even be unaware of the best oral health practices. Gently reminding them of what can be done to improve their health while also letting them know what they are doing well helps acclimatize them with staying on top of their oral health. Additionally, this type of communication reminds the patient that the dentist’s office is a resource to help them, not a place to fear.
Positive reinforcement also extends to chairside etiquette, as patients who feel nervous may be outwardly and physically agitated. Reminding them that they are doing a good job throughout the cleaning, despite any anxiety they are feeling, can help to take them out of the negative headspace, even if only briefly. When this is combined with other techniques, such as deep breathing, there is a better chance your patient’s anxiety will begin to subside during the appointment.
Combating dental anxiety will vary from patient to patient. The most important thing you can do as a practitioner is maintain open, honest and personable communication with every patient. Keep these techniques in your back pocket as you move forward, and know you are prepared to help your patients navigate any anxieties they have about visiting the dentist.
About the Author
Dr. Shahrooz Yazdani is the CEO and Director of Yazdani Family Dentistry. Dr. Yazdani earned his DDS degree with Honours from the University of Toronto in 1998, then completed a 2-year residency in North Carolina. In 2001, he opened Yazdani Family Dentistry, and a few years later, he expanded and opened Costello Family Dentistry.