Study: Dental Anxiety May Be Tamed Using CBT

Worried person waiting in the dentist chairVisiting the dentist is a common and usually normal experience in everyday life, but for people with dental-related anxiety, the visit can manage to instill panic and fear.

Many people may not enjoy dental appointments, but that unease can become a phobia when the anxiety surrounding a dental appointment has a significantly negative impact on someone’s well-being. The phobia usually manifests in avoiding trips to the dentists, suffering with unnecessary pain, and eventually reduced oral health. Data from the latest Adult Dental Health Survey in the United Kingdom suggests at least 1 in 10 people may experience some form of dental phobia.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been studied as an effective treatment for general anxiety, acute stress, and obsessive compulsive behaviors. Now, research is examining the role it can play for those experiencing heightened dental anxiety.

Study Shows CBT’s Effect on Dental Phobia

Researchers from King’s College London studied 130 dental patients experiencing some form of dental-related anxiety. Each was evaluated for levels of generalized anxiety and other mental health conditions as well as dental anxiety. The researchers used the Modified Dental Anxiety Scale to assess whether participants had dental phobia. Those who scored 19 or higher—about three quarters of participants—were determined to have dental phobia.

Of the 77% who displayed indicators for dental phobia, the results revealed 79% responded positively after an average of five CBT sessions. Those participants were able to undergo dental treatment without the aid of a sedative—one of the study’s key distinctions for progress.

CBT as an Effective Tool for Anxiety

Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT frequently assists people with issues of pain and fear at her practice in California’s San Fernando Valley. She points to CBT’s ability, when mastered, to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones, and to shift anxiety-increasing behaviors toward actions that may be more soothing.

“CBT is such an effective tool because it works on both invasive automatic thoughts and the behaviors that can aggravate them,” she said. “Dental phobias start with a small but logical fear—of pain—and become magnified until the very sound of a drill can evoke terror. But the phobia can be calmed relatively quickly by understanding where the thought moves from rational to obsessive.”

Learning to label such thoughts as exaggerations, Botnick said, can be used effectively along with relaxation techniques to bring about change.


  1. Kani, E., Asimakopoulou, K., Daly, B., Hare, J., Lewis, J., Scambler, S., . . . Newton, J. (2015). Characteristics of patients attending for cognitive behavioural therapy at one UK specialist unit for dental phobia and outcomes of treatment. BDJ Br Dent J, 501-506. doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2015.890
  2. Cognitive behaviour therapy can help overcome fear of the dentist. (2015, November 27). Retrieved from
  3. Otte, C. (2011). Cognitive behavioral therapy in anxiety disorders: current state of the evidence. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 13(4), 413–421.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Kristy

    December 7th, 2015 at 10:19 AM

    Not until I started working for an oral surgeon did I believe or understand just how phobic many patients are about receiving dental care. As a matter of fact we have some patients who simply come to us because they have let their teeth go bad after years of neglecting to go to the dentist just for that simple fact. I would hate to have to cope with something as debilitating as this becomes for some people.

  • FRannie

    December 8th, 2015 at 7:41 AM

    cbt… and valium

  • Jack

    December 8th, 2015 at 12:34 PM

    Most anxieties are quite similar – it’s just the trigger that causes the fear to activate is what changes. CBT is by far one of THE MOST effective techniques to overcome anxiety – if you are struggling, don’t hesitate! As Kristy said – don’t wait until it’s too late!

  • Kev

    December 9th, 2015 at 11:26 AM

    I wonder how many people who experience this kind of fear even know that most of the rest of us do not worry about this at all and that there is actually something that they can pursue that would help rid them of this fear? I am not sure that there are many dental providers who would even think to recommend this to their patients never mind even know to whom they could refer them to get help. Add to that that most people are not going to go after that kind of treatment anyway, they will just hobble along from visit to visit hoping that their teeth will hold up enough that they don’t have to have anything serious done.

  • renee

    December 10th, 2015 at 2:32 PM

    This is another one of those times where you know there are people telling them to get over it, it isn’t any big deal. But if it scares you then it scares you and there is not one thing that anyone can say that will change your mind.

    But finding some things that can help you manage that fear like maybe going to therapy could, not that could help certain patients make real progress.

  • juniper

    December 11th, 2015 at 10:21 AM

    This is not quite the same but I do know that there are a lot of dental offices who strive to make their visits with them more of a spa like experience. I guess that this is supposed to help patients relax a little more easily.

  • Judith

    December 13th, 2015 at 11:09 AM

    Could anyone say for sure how long it may be before you see benefits from this?

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