Dental Fear and Anxiety

I Haven’t Been to the Dentist in Forever. What Should I Do?

Has it been awhile since you’ve been to the dentist? A lot of people have written in saying that they want to go back to the dentist, but they’re afraid, anxious, or ashamed of how much time they’ve let lapse. It’s hard to even know where to start! Today I’m sharing three tips that will help take the anxiety out of the process.

by Dr. Burhenne

havent been to the dentist in forever

Has it been a while? A lot of people have been writing in saying that they want to go back to the dentist, but they’re afraid, anxious, or ashamed at how long they’ve lapsed.

When you haven’t been to the dentist in awhile, it’s hard to know where to even start. These are my tips.

How to Go Back to the Dentist (If You Haven’t Been in a While)

1. Floss One Tooth

Sounds simple, but it works every time. When I tell my patients this, they laugh, saying, “What difference will that make?” But I say, if it’s so easy, then do it.

When you floss just one tooth every day, after a few days you start to notice the tingly clean feeling in between that one spot. After a few weeks of getting into the routine, you’ll start to say “Ahh, I’ll just floss a few more.”

Flossing all our teeth is overwhelming—flossing one tooth isn’t so scary or difficult. And it’s very hard to make excuses when your only job is to floss one tooth!

floss one tooth mark burhenne

2. Make It Convenient

Sometimes it feels like cheating if we make things easier on ourselves, but it’s not cheating—it’s a great strategy for starting new habits! Author Gretchen Rubin says, “a lot of times we get discouraged about our habits because we think, ‘Oh, I tried this and I failed. I keep trying to get myself to go the gym and I don’t succeed. So I have no self-control, I have no willpower. What’s wrong with me?’ Whereas if you set it up in a way that’s right for you, you’re going to have much better success.”

Choose a dentist with a convenient location. Or, better yet, pick a dentist that has a location nearby to something that you associate with a treat or reward, like a favorite restaurant, park, or your best friend’s house—and then book appointments at the same time that you make plans to go to that special place. Going to the place you like will make it easier to get yourself to the dentist at the same time.

3. Find the Right Dentist

I can’t stress this one enough. Take the time to interview a few different dentists. Do your research. Use my guide for how to find an awesome, affordable dentist. Find someone who believes in a shame-free practice and isn’t interested in just filling holes, but is interested in you and your health goals and how your teeth are impacting the health of the rest of your body. A little upfront work is worth it—you’ll actually enjoy coming in and catching up with the staff—another way to trick yourself into going!

Consider finding a dentist who has a therapy dog. It’s not as rare as you may think. You might even find a dentist who will let you bring your own furry friend to sit on your lap during the appointment (so long as they’re well-behaved!).

The next best option if you can’t find a dentist with a therapy dog: bring my therapy dog Pinterest board with you to your next dental appointment. Just the gaze of a dog’s face—even a photo of one—can produce oxytocin and make you feel more relaxed in the dental chair.

4. Make it a Game

Getting results can be incredibly motivating. For example, if you’re bleeding in one area, see if you can get that area to stop bleeding by focusing your brushing and flossing in just that area. Do this together with your dentist or hygienist. Once you start changing things, noticing results, and taking an active role in changing your health, it can be incredibly fun!


Dr. Mark Burhenne

Have you not been to the dentist in a while? What are your tips for going back? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

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Dr. Mark Burhenne DDS

8 Comments

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  1. I think that you just schedule a meeting with the dentist. It can really help out a lot to get back to visiting regularly. It can really make a difference as well. You then don’t have to worry about anything.

  2. There is no need to worry while visiting dentist. You just need to be calm down and stop thinking negative things. These tips are also seems helpful.

  3. I have severe migraine and one of the triggers is noise. The noise and vibrations from the drilling at at the dentist sets off the migraine which in turn sends me to the ER. I severely grind my teeth at night which resolved in breaking two wisdom teeth, and a small front tooth. I am scared to go to the dentist, I have no pain, would sedation dentistry help me?

  4. I honestly haven’t been to the dentist in about 6-7 years. The first 3 years it was because the military clinic did not have the availability to see dependents, but the area we were in we could not get approval for outside care. Then the coming years after that there was dealing with my husband’s PTSD, anxiety, and depression, when he retired we couldn’t afford the new more expensive premiums for the retired plan, and then I had postpartum depression after an unexpected pregnancy. We’re finally able to afford dental insurance again, but coverage won’t start for 12 months. I’m afraid of going back. A little because of the cost, a little because of pain, but mostly for feeling ashamed and having to explain why it’s been so long. I know the importance of regular check ups, frequent brushing and flossing, and what can happen to your health if neglected. Everything a dentist can lecture me on, I already tell myself daily. The feeling of shame and failure is worse than the physical pain, and having to admit that to someone else is difficult. I almost expect to be lectured and angrily and disappointedly told, “You can’t stop your oral health care.” Maybe because I tell myself it already, but being struck like that from another person won’t help.

    So I appreciate your kindness and sympathy in writing this. Sometimes people do stop seeing the dentist for longer then they should for a variety of reasons. Thank you for bringing hope that maybe I’ll find someone that will encourage me for coming back, rather than shaming me for staying away.

  5. I am terrified of the dentist, always have been. Dog therapy wouldn’t work for me because I have severe allergies and Asthma.

  6. Hi, I haven’t been to the dentist since I was 6yo and I am now 33. I have had bad oral health through out my life. My adult life has consisted of covering my mouth when I laugh, smiling in photos without showing my teeth and popping lots of Tylenol for the throbbing pain I would often get. Not to mention finding pieces of broken teeth every so often.

    Recently I ate a very hard piece of broccoli and I guess that particular moment for whatever reason loosened a tooth and it was soooo painful. I felt like someone took a bat to my jaw. I tried to play it off because I knew it required a visit to the dreaded dentist. The pain was unbearable and the idea of a loose tooth in the front wasn’t sitting well with me. I knew that was the least of my worries considering the dentist was going to give me a long list of more important issues that need to be fixed. So I finally decided to start the process. I went on yelp and of course googled “gentle dentist” (lol) and I found one. Built up the courage to go in for a consultation. Not sure what I was thinking but I was not expecting him to look in my mouth. Omg the embarrassment. Of course because I am just a lucky person- he had a bunch of interns shadowing him. Imagine ten heads looking into your mouth while your dentist tells you have severe gum disease and pointing out all the cavities (which they call “decay”) and all the teeth that will need to come out and be replaced with implants. Scary. Right away he says I will need a deep cleaning which you have to be numbed for and they only do a section at a time. After this cleaning he will be able to really determine the issues. Ok I booked an appt for the deep cleaning. Scared- I did a lot of research to find out all that was involved so that I knew what to expect. The worst part was the shot to numb the location. My teeth and mouth feel AMAZING! All the gunk and nasty is gone! Omg I want to go in for cleanings all the time now! But that’s just the beginning. My long punch list included removing all wisdom teeth. Now that was an interesting journey. scared again, I did all my research. I asked all the right questions and was fully prepared what to expect. I didn’t go under btw- just Valium and novocaine. It was quick, it was this morning actually. It was ten hours ago to be exact. After the removal was immed pain but I’ve been keeping it under wraps. On top of one wisdom removal I was also fitted for a bridge. For the first time in my life, I have teeth on the right side of my mouth and I can smile. That feeling is stronger than any fear of getting to the dentist. Please start the process of going to the dentist. You don’t realize how important the dentist is. It’s not just about your teeth and gums. Whatever infectious grossness that spawned from your wisdoms or for not taking care of your teeth- that stuff goes into your blood stream and makes its way in your body. It just doesn’t stay in our mouth. Then your body works overtime to push it out but it’s not going anywhere if you don’t go to the dentist. Seriously I was so scared of the dentist. Bad memories. I can’t even watch a movie that shows someone plucking a tooth out without thinking of my own mouth. But seriously- it’s worth it. Start to take care of your mouth and those throbbing uncontrollable pain will be gone! Don’t ruin your liver by masking the pain with Tylenol etc. it’s easier said than done I know. Took me almost 30 years. Best damn decision I made in my life. IT IS EXPENSIVE. Be prepared- I had to take out a small loan, ugh.

    • Thanks for the long post. I’m about to go through much of what you did. I’m 55, waited too long, and now I’m about to lose some teeth. I feel a lot of anxiety. I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I dread the dentist. I took comfort knowing you came through it and are happy.

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