Let’s be honest, the dentist’s office isn’t our favorite place in the world. Whether we’re taking a visit for our 6-month teeth cleaning or getting a cavity filled, the situation can be stressful. When we spoke to New York cosmetic dentist Nargiz Schmidt, DDS, she informed us that this overarching feeling of dread associated with the dentist’s office is far more normal than we would ever think: According to her, about 35 million people suffer from a range of different dental anxieties, both small and crippling. This major number has not only influenced her to research more about the topic of dental phobia—she’s since written a book called The Fearless Smile: Overcoming Dental Phobia—but it also pushed her to implement soothing tactics into her practice, and they’re not what you would think.
“Many people suffer from a range of different dental anxieties,” says Dr. Schmidt. “While there are a large handful of people with true phobias—meaning they can’t even sit in a dental chair—others are just very nervous before they come to the dentist.”
When Dr. Schmidt first started her career, she noticed that a lot of people were postponing their treatment because they were afraid and ashamed to admit their anxieties. According to her, this fear is not only an issue for the patient’s mental health but also for their oral health. “They want to avoid sitting in the dental chair even for checkups or cleaning services, which makes their problem even bigger.” Her goal: to ensure that these patients have positive new experiences so they’re no longer afraid to step foot in a dentist’s office.
“I always ask patients what makes them nervous. Some people are triggered by the look of a dentist’s office, some are triggered by needles and there is a big percentage of patients who are scared of the drilling noise. Among her large roster of patients, she’s had people come in saying their phobia started from a tooth extraction being done when they were a child or that they had previously gotten dental work without anesthesia. “The feeling of not being in control made them avoid the dentist altogether,” she says. “The overarching cause for these fears is that something was done to these patients at some point in their lives that made them scared. It’s a lot of childhood trauma.”
Dr. Schmidt adds that this can be a very emotional time for patients. “I have a lot of patients start crying the moment I sit down to speak with them,” she says. “I also have a lot of celebrity patients who can talk to 10,000 people without fear, but feel completely helpless in a dental chair.”
In her office, Dr. Schmidt offers a variety of ways to soothe her patients. “When I saw this trend taking place, I added IV sedation to my practice so my patients knew they could rest and feel calm even during their lightest procedures. This was such a positive reinforcement for so many patients, so I set out to change the perspective of a scary dental experience and turn it into something doable.”
She also adds that a big stressor for patients is the look and smell of the office. “With this in mind, I decorated my office like a hotel and incorporated beautiful fragrances so patients feel like they’re a guest rather than a patient.”
Thirdly, Dr. Schmidt books an initial consultation appointment to get to know the patient before they sit in her chair. “During this appointment, we thoroughly talk through the extent of their fear and where it’s coming from.”
“A lot of the time, patients are afraid to be in the chair because they’re afraid the dentist is going to do something they weren’t prepared for and that they’re going to be in pain. Of course, nobody wants to be in pain, so I guarantee them that they can control the whole process. Throughout each step, I ask them if they’re okay with what I’m doing and I also explain each step throughout the whole procedure, which is relaxing.” In order to ensure her clients feel safe, Dr. Schmidt also takes her time with each patient. “I don’t want to be rushed—I want to give them the attention they deserve.”
Dr. Schmidt says overcoming dental anxiety is not accomplished in just one visit. “After their first visit, when patients see that someone is there to listen to them and that the office looks like a nice hotel, they get over their fear a bit—but that’s just the first step.” The second step is implementing a calming practice, like IV sedation. “This service allows patients to wake up relaxed, so their fear is automatically wiped away.” After they’ve experienced Dr. Schmidt’s relaxing techniques across a series of visits, 80 percent of her patients with dental anxieties and phobias are no longer scared.