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Can dentists tell if you’re nervous?

It’s completely normal to feel anxious or nervous before a dental appointment. Many people experience some level of anxiety when faced with the prospect of sitting in the dentist’s chair. Dental anxiety is estimated to affect anywhere from 9% to 20% of the population. The reasons behind dental anxiety can vary widely between individuals. Some people may have had a traumatic or painful dental experience in the past. Others simply dislike the sensations and sounds associated with dental work. There are also those who fear the dentist will find cavities or other problems during their checkup. Whatever the source of your anxiety may be, you can rest assured that dentists are very accustomed to working with nervous patients. There are many telltale signs that allow dentists to recognize when a patient is feeling tense or apprehensive. Being aware of your anxiety can help the dentist take steps to make you more comfortable.

Common Signs of Nervousness

Dentists are highly trained at reading body language and recognizing signs of anxiety. Here are some of the most common indicators that you may be feeling nervous in the dentist’s chair:

– Clenched jaw or tight facial muscles
– Sweaty palms
– Leg bouncing or foot tapping
– Fidgeting fingers
– Rapid breathing
– Irregular heartbeat
– Avoiding eye contact
– Tense neck and shoulders
– Gripping armrests
– Restlessness
– Stiff posture
– Explaining anxiety or nervousness

Many patients verbalize their dental anxiety directly to the dentist and hygienist. Expressing your concerns upfront encourages the dental team to take extra care to help you relax.

Changes During Dental Exams

The dentist will also notice subtle changes in your demeanor once the exam begins. Signs you may display when nervous during a dental cleaning or procedure include:

– Flinching at instruments
– Closing eyes or hesitating to open mouth
– Gagging easily
– Cringing at sounds
– Pulling away suddenly
– Answering questions slowly
– Apologizing repeatedly
– Requesting breaks frequently
– Avoiding the suction tool
– Complaining of discomfort
– Tensing up during X-rays
– Gripping fingers on bib
– Heavy breathing
– Watery eyes
– Exaggerated blinking
– Tremors in hands or lips

Physical Responses

In addition to the observable signs of nervousness, dentists can detect physical changes using the tools they have on hand. Your vitals betray anxiety through:

– Elevated blood pressure
– Increased pulse rate
– Dilated pupils
– Sweaty palms
– Shaking hands
– Cold extremities
– Swallowing excessively
– Enlarged tongue
– Pale complexion
– Goosebumps

The dentist may also notice your mouth is dry, a common physiological response to stress and anxiety.

When Kids Are Anxious

Children display their dental anxiety in different ways depending on their age and personality. Toddlers may cry, try to wiggle away, or continually ask for their parent. Preschoolers often become very still and hesitant. School-aged kids sometimes overexplain their nervousness. Teens may make jokes or become irritable to mask their discomfort. Pediatric dentists receive extensive training to recognize signs of anxiety in patients of all ages. Distraction through conversation, rewards, and positive reinforcement are often used to alleviate children’s fears.

Strategies to Ease Anxiety

The good news is there are many effective ways dentists can help you relax before and during your visit:

– Ask what triggers your anxiety and explain your concerns.
– Request a consultation visit to meet the dentist first.
– Schedule your appointment early in the day when you tend to be less stressed.
– Avoid caffeine before your appointment.
– Listen to calm music on the drive over.
– Bring headphones and listen to music or meditation during treatment.
– Ask if sedation dentistry is appropriate for you.

During treatment
– Close your eyes and practice deep breathing techniques.
– Visualize being in your happy place.
– Raise your left hand if you need a break.
– Receive anesthesia for any procedures.
– Start with simple treatment like a cleaning before moving on to more invasive options.
– Use hand signals like thumbs up or down to communicate.
– Watch TV or a movie to stay distracted.
– Squeeze a stress ball.
– Wear virtual reality goggles to escape the setting.
– Get referrals for anti-anxiety premedication.
– Ask the dentist to narrate steps and pause between each.
– Agreed upon hand squeeze signals can be used to indicate all is well.
– Schedule shorter, more frequent visits.


Dentists are very adept at identifying signs of anxiety in their patients. There are many subtle and obvious cues that will indicate if you are feeling nervous or tense before or during dental treatment. Simply informing your dentist about your anxiety puts them on alert to utilize any strategies that will help you calm down and feel at ease. With an understanding and patient dental team, you can get the care you need in a comfortable, judgement-free environment. Regular exposure combined with relaxation techniques can help lessen dental anxiety over time.