Five Ways to Successfully Address Patient Anxiety in Your Dental Practice

Anxiety among dental patients is extremely common and greatly impacts a patient’s experience and outcome. But there are a few things you can do in your dental practice to help patients address their fears and alleviate their anxieties.

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In the 2013 book, Behavioral Dentistry, it was noted that nearly half of all Americans have some level of dental anxiety, and up to 10% of patients avoid dental appointments altogether because of it.

However, there are things you can do to help patients feel empowered to overcome their fears while creating an environment in your dental practice that’s welcoming and relaxing for everyone.

1. The Waiting Room: Create A Calming Environment

Try to step inside your practice with a fresh perspective and take a look around. Notice the furniture, the lighting, the view, the sounds, and the smells. How does your waiting room make you feel? If the answer isn’t relaxed and at ease, that may be an indication you can improve your patients’ experience.

Waiting rooms don’t have to be lifeless fluorescent-filled rooms that smell of antiseptic or “tooth dust.” Engage their senses and challenge the notion of what it means to be in a waiting room.

2. Ambiance

In a recent cluster randomized-controlled trial, patients who sat in a waiting room for 30 minutes with a lavender scent experienced significantly lower levels of anticipatory anxiety than the control group, who waited in a non-scented waiting room.

The use of lavender scent in dental settings can serve as a low cost, simple intervention for alleviating dental patient anxiety. However, some people are sensitive to smells and may experience an adverse reaction. Consider offering lavender as an option to those who would benefit from the calming scent.

3. Layout and Theme

Every element within a waiting room is an opportunity to communicate with your patients. The furniture style and comfort, photographs, and the room’s ambiance can all reinforce a calming atmosphere. Some dentists choose to make their waiting rooms look more like a living room while others may go with a relaxing spa vibe.

4. Waiting Room Amenities

What would put you at ease as a patient in a waiting environment? Free Wi-Fi? Electrical and USB outlets in each chair? Natural lighting? Privacy? A seamless check-in process? What would show you a practice is going the extra mile to put their patient at ease?

Brainstorming creatively from this position will help you to look at the environment in a different light.

After the patient has checked in and relaxed in the waiting room, it’s time for the consultation, which can be equally fraught with psychological pitfalls.

5. Patient Interview

Due to how common dental anxiety is, it’s often recommended to hold the first session in a non-dental operatory setting. This helps to build confidence, rapport, and non-painful associations between the patient and practitioner before any procedure takes place.

When meeting your patient for the first time in a non-operatory setting, it can be incredibly helpful to identify and address the sources of their anxiety. Although each patient is unique, dental anxiety usually involves one or more of the following:

  • A past traumatic dental experience.
  • A fear of the unknown treatment needs.
  • A fear of judgement from others based on the state of their oral health.
  • The anticipation of pain.
  • The cost of treatment.

Understanding the source of patient anxiety is an important first step in addressing their concerns. In this stage, take note of the patients’ verbal and non-verbal language. This will tell you what they need to hear from you. Regardless of their fears, try to listen actively with empathy and without judgment.

For patients that express anxiety over a past traumatic dental experience, have them tell you about the experience and what specifically caused their anxiety. Is there anything the dentist did that made the problem worse?

Addressing the Cause

If the patient exhibits extreme anxiety around dental procedures, especially if their anxiety arises from the anticipation of pain, this may be a good time to discuss intravenous and oral sedatives.

Other times, the scope and cost of a procedure are the root of dental anxiety. If patients are concerned about a lengthy treatment plan or if they are worried about cost, remind them that the practice will be there to strategize priorities and help arrange the necessary financial agreements.

Some anxiety stems from a loss of control. In addition to the option of holding the saliva ejector, patients appreciate the power to request simple options such as the music in the room, a calming essential oil fragrance, a cozy blanket, desensitizing or topical anesthetic agents, nitrous oxide, or even the flavor of the prophy paste.

Establishing a hand signal permits the patient to temporarily interrupt the procedure if their anxiety or pain has increased. Remind patients that they are in control and can raise their hand to stop you if there is a problem.

Other patient anxiety may be caused by a fear of the unknown. If this is the case, setting clear treatment goals with defined objectives and a criterion for success can help let them know exactly what will happen. The main source of tension in this stage is the gap of knowledge between the patient and dentist. Inform the patient using both verbal communication and visual aids, such as intraoral photos and simple graphics when possible.

There are also existing video libraries that can show your patient animations of the procedure, what to expect, and FAQs, helping to cut down on your chair time. Videos like this can also be replayed later if the patient would like to review the details in a calmer state of mind.


With nearly half of all patients experiencing some form of dental anxiety, practices must understand and alleviate the causes of anxiety. We can empower patients to make informed decisions that will increase their quality of life.

If you want to learn more about how story-based video libraries can increase patient engagement, decrease chair time, increase practice revenues, and reduce patient anxiety, visit Engage Dental or text keyword Docs Ed to 890890.

These automated, cloud-based solutions deliver the short-form educational content your patients need during their peak time of interest.

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