Stress causing cracked teeth or grinding?

A simple exercise from Bioenergetics can help, with a caveat

Ah, stress…! We are all too familiar with it, from the impacts of the pandemic, finances, racism, the political situation, etc. One of the ways stress affects people is muscle tension. Our bodies tense to brace against injury or attack. We also tense to hold back emotions or expressions we consider unpleasant or unacceptable. This tension generally happens unconsciously. While it is sometimes necessary to tense the muscles in the jaw to hold back emotions, doing it consistently can cause significant damage, such as with temporomandibular disorders (in the temporomandibular joint, incorrectly referred to as TMJ), grinding at night or cracked teeth. A simple exercise can help to release tension from your jaw. This is an important exercise to add to your daily stress relief routine.

An article in the NY Times, from Sept 8, 2020, titled: “A Dentist Sees More Cracked Teeth: What’s Going On” confirms this. The dentist, Dr. Tammy Chen, DDS, stated that she had seen more cracked teeth in a 6 week period (from mid July to early Sept), than in the previous 6 years! That was in September, before COVID cases skyrocketed and escalation from the US elections.

The masseter muscle of the jaw is one of the strongest muscles in the body https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle. You can find this muscle by putting your fingers on your face at the back of your jaw. Go to the hinge of your jaw and come slightly forward. If you press in with your thumbs you will likely feel some pain. You have likely found your masseter muscles along with your temporomandibular joint. The jaw muscles can exert tremendous force, necessary for activities such as chewing and biting Clenching these muscles, therefore, requires significant effort (even if we are unaware of the clenching), especially if we clench chronically. Releasing these tight muscles will take conscious effort. 

Background (you can skip this and go straight to the exercise, but it will give you some info about the complexity of the issue.) As a Bioenergetic therapist, I have learned about some of the reasons people chronically clench their jaw. For some people, chronic jaw tension starts in infancy. The mouth is one of the first ways an infant makes contact with the world – from the need to suck for eating and from vocal self-expression. If an infant is not given sufficient nurturing, they will clench their jaw to hold against the pain of the unmet need. Or, if the infant is punished excessively for screaming or crying, they will clench their jaw to hold back the sounds. As the infant grows and develops the ability to bite, if the punishment for their biting is too severe, the infant will clench to hold back their natural aggressive/biting instinct. 

As adults, chronic tension in the jaw can continue out of our awareness. With an increase in overall stress, the jaw becomes a key area of tension. We may tighten our jaw to hold back anger or frustration about an increased demand on our time and attention. Jaw tension can manifest when we feel conflicted, worried or anxious.  Spending too much time on the computer can cause tension in the neck and shoulders which contributes to tension in the jaw. To explore this for yourself, think about something that causes you stress and notice what happens in your jaw. 

Try this exercise: jut your lower jaw forward as far as you can. If you have not done this exercise before, look in a mirror to confirm you are jutting your lower jaw forward, rather than clenching your teeth while holding your lower jaw back. Your lower teeth should come out in front of your upper teeth. Experiment with the stretch by moving your lower jaw from side to side. (If you are self-conscious about how it looks, don’t keep looking in the mirror. This is about releasing tension, not looking good!) You can also help the muscle to release by massaging the masseter muscle, gently inviting the muscles to relax. You may wish to continue by massaging the muscles that extend to your temples as well.

The caveat: this exercise will likely hurt, especially if you hold a lot of tension in this area. This is natural, as the intensity of pain usually relates to the amount of tension in the muscle. If you feel a lot of pain, use your breath, taking deep, slow breaths, to help the muscles release. Tolerate some pain, if you can, without tensing against it. If you have serious pain or you have an injury or arthritis, go very slowly. You can complain, which sometimes helps, and keep taking deep breaths. If the pain becomes too intense, take a break. As a way to understand the pain, imagine tensing your hand by making a fist for several minutes. When you start to open your fist, it would feel uncomfortable and even painful at first. Experiment with the stretch until you can feel some release in the jaw muscle. Notice if the pain of releasing feels different from the pain of straining a muscle. Your jaw may feel sore afterwards. 

Variation of the exercise: roll a clean washcloth or hand towel and put it as far back in your jaw as you can. Bite down on the towel. Move your jaw from side to side. Think of a dog biting on a toy, growling and shaking their head. Dogs work tension out of their jaws in this way, and we can take a lesson from them. You can also play silly growling games with your kids. Or open and close your mouth widely and move your lower jaw from side to side. You’ll probably feel strange doing it at first, but if you practice regularly, you might feel less stressed and even cause less injury to your teeth – likely a fair exchange!

Because muscles generally tense out of fear, as you do these stretches, you may feel some anxiety or fear. Other emotions, such as sadness or anger, may arise as well. If this happens, go slowly and be gentle with yourself. You can stop at any time. Do something soothing to help you tolerate the feelings. If you feel overwhelmed by the emotions or if you suffer from heightened anxiety, depression or memories of trauma, I encourage you to find a psychotherapist. Likewise, if you have severe TMD (the correct term for what we usually call TMJ), you may want to see a massage therapist or physical therapist. 

I suggest you do these exercises regularly. It takes time to release the tension from the past and you need to let go of stress regularly. Doing it just before bed can help you relax and be able to sleep, including reducing grinding your teeth. Adding this to a routine with other stretches before bed, like rotating your shoulders, moving your neck and grounding with your legs and feet can further help you to relax and release stress from the day. Many of my clients experience greater relaxation, deeper sleep and less jaw tension from stretching before bed. For similar exercises, including grounding and making boundaries, go to the articles section on my website. 

Bioenergetic therapists integrate work with the body along with traditional talk therapy. The physical exercises incorporated in Bioenergetic therapy help clients to release chronic tensions, set healthy boundaries and explore emotional expression in a safe and supportive environment. For more information about this approach or for where to find a Bioenergetic therapist go to: www.nanziba.com or www.bioenergetic-therapy.com.

What seeds to plant for 2021?

A variety of events have recently coincided to signal a shift of energies. The solstice, marking the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere (and the longest day in the southern hemisphere), has just passed with the accompanying turn towards longer days and more light. The vaccine against the Coronavirus, produced in amazing speed, gives reason to be hopeful about a shift from this issue. The new administration in the US, to be inaugurated on Jan 21, will bring a different focus. The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was a significant astrological and astronomical event around the solstice, which occurs only every 20 years. But the last time the planets were visible this close to each other was in 1226! And, on Jan 1, we welcome in 2021.

I recently found some seed packages which I had intended to plant last summer, but it was too late for planting when they arrived. I realized that it is almost time to plant seeds now for the coming spring and summer. I remembered the vegetable seeds I planted last year – kale, lettuce, cucumbers, basil – which I nursed into seedlings and tended through the season. I remember carefully picking worms from the kale which they were devouring. I can think back to harvesting an abundance of cucumbers and giving up on my slow-growing, tender basil plants. 

This is a time for considering what seeds to plant this year – both metaphorically and literally. Where I live, in the northeast, it’s not time to plant yet, but to start looking forward to the time to plant. How many cucumbers do I want this year? Shall I give up on the basil? I will definitely plant those flower seeds I received late last year. 

Along with the seeds, it’s a time to reflect on the paths in my life. Realistically, I can have many paths going, but can only be on 1 at a time. Which paths do I choose? What paths do I invest in now and which do I put aside? Likewise, I only have time and energy for so many relationships. It’s a good time to reflect on these, too.  

As you celebrate the winter holidays, marking the days of cold and hibernation and begin to move into  2021, I encourage you to consider the following questions. What seeds do you want to plant in your life this year? What paths will you take? Which of your relationships matter most to you? 

You might reflect on what have been the challenges – both positive and negative – for you in the past year. In what ways have you grown, through the challenges, and how have your priorities shifted as you look ahead? What paths have you chosen this year? Where have those paths led? 

Ponder which relationships you have invested in recently and where that has brought you. From your current perspective, looking back, are you satisfied with where you are, or do you wish to make adjustments as you move forward? You might reflect on which relationships nurture you and which drain you. Focusing on those which nurture you may mean divesting from others. This may involve hard choices and some losses. But, as you move in the direction of choosing your satisfaction, clarity, along with enjoyment, and possibly even pleasure, awaits you. 

Menu additions, holidays 2020: a serving of disappointment, a side of relief, a cup of conflict & a heap of anxiety?? 

This holiday season brings a variety of new feelings and experiences for most of us. With the surging virus rates, traditional holiday plans require shifts and changes. For many people, this may bring the next in a series of disappointments in 2020, along with canceled weddings, graduations, trips, classes, reunions, etc. Others may experience relief at having an excuse to get out of gatherings they dread. Family conflicts are at an all time high, while anxiety about a variety of things impacts almost everyone.

Disappointment falls in the category of feelings that no one likes. We feel it when  external circumstances change, without our control. Anticipation is wired in our bodies. Images and smells of food leads us to salivate in preparation for tasting and digestion. Thinking about and planning beloved holiday traditions can bring comfort and joy, which is now lost. Many people look forward to holidays as a time to gather with family or friends who are otherwise busy or who live far away. These rituals live deep in our bones. 

Other people, who traditionally experience the holidays as a time of loneliness or missing family and friends, may feel a sense of relief this year. Rather than being alone and feeling sad, at a time when it seems everyone is happy and celebrating with loved ones, they may experience relief that their sadness is more widely shared. Meanwhile some people may cherish the opportunity to choose how to spend the holidays, rather than joining in perfunctory gatherings. 

Conflicts, especially in families where people have differing political perspectives and/or where people have been working or studying together, may be more prevalent during this year’s holiday celebrations. Tensions from the disappointments and lack of opportunity to gather with others, may further the conflicts. Many people have strong opinions and being cooped up with people who don’t share their perspectives can be difficult.

Lastly, who doesn’t feel heightened anxiety this year? With so much uncertainty, loss, fear and change, anxiety is rampant. Some worry about feeding themselves and their family, others worry about paying their rent, while many worry about getting sick or losing loved ones. For some people the worries loom large about when they will be able to return to work or travel or gather with friends and family again. 

While we may wish to live only in the moment, untouched by the pain of disappointment and not impacted by anxiety about the future, we are not wired this way. Our response generally involves a mix of anger at having things taken from us and sadness about the loss of anticipated joy. Unfortunately, denial does not make it go away. For this holiday season, I encourage you to start by acknowledging all or your feelings, including fear, anxiety, sadness, anger and disappointment.

I suggest you be conscious of things you do to avoid feeling, such as drinking too much alcohol, overeating, losing yourself in TV or in playing games on your phone. Instead, consider taking the risk of sharing your feelings with people close to you. Seek alternative ways to be with yourself and each other.  Find connection in simple pleasures such as being outside, moving your body and receiving solace in the constancy of nature. If possible, take quiet time to reflect on what you value and how to do or have more of that in your life. Make plans for things you want to do when you can gather and/or travel again. Notice the people around you and do something kind for someone in need. Or, risk reaching out to ask for something you need or want.

For those with family conflicts, I suggest two options. If you can listen to each other to learn and share perspectives, do that. If you are too polarized, agree to avoid these topics. Everyone has a right to their opinion and everyone also has a right to their boundaries. It’s important to allow each other space and time alone. If you are confined and need time apart, look for even small ways to get this. 

The changes thrust upon us this year can bring gifts along with the many losses. I wish for you gifts of clarity, of shifting priorities, of simple pleasures and having enough of what you truly need. 

Experiencing Post Election Traumatic Stress? You are not alone!

Post Election Traumatic Stress (PETS) compares to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), but since it is pervasive and a normal response rather than a “disorder” I leave the D off. One could debate if it is comparable to PTSD as one of the key components of PTSD is life-threatening stress – either for yourself or for someone you witness. With so much at stake in this election (democracy, climate change, systemic racism, health care, the government response to the Coronavirus, women’s rights to choices about their bodies, preserving wilderness, gun laws, the judicial system, and more) we can argue that the stress IS potentially life threatening.

Symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Checking the news on your TV or phone repeatedly for updates and info
  • Holding your breath
  • Expecting the worst
  • Forgetfulness
  • Despair
  • Hopelessness
  • Shock and disbelief at the number of people who have voted for the current regime
  • Thoughts of moving or seceding from the United States
  • Physical symptoms such as a pit in your stomach, grinding your teeth, or overall tension
  • Questioning the future of humanity on this planet
  • Social media obsession
  • Eating junk food or drinking more than you normally do
  • Excessive focus on distractions such as baking
  • Anxiety about what will happen next
  • Anger that fellow citizens voted to reelect entrenched power mongers despite their heinous acts 
  • Sadness and grief
  • Losing temper or yelling at those around you

Another important symptom is reconsidering priorities and boundaries with people in your life. Realizing that colleagues, friends and family members cast their vote for a president with a proven record of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-environmentalism, anti-science, misogyny, anti-semitism and fascism, without empathy for innocent beings and little regard for others may be a wake up call in your relationships. You may have less tolerance for the intolerance of others. You may reevaluate your willingness to spend your precious time with people who have voted for these values. As a client astutely stated: “I have a problem with a vote for trump that I can’t just go along to get along with. I can’t forgive that vote. If someone were to change their mind later and realize that, I’d accept them with open post-pandemic arms. But until that, they don’t get to be in my life.” This reevaluation is a healthy response. Lines in the sand have been drawn. While this does not make space for hostility or acts of aggression, it makes space for personal choices about who you choose to have around you, and what behavior you choose to permit in your presence. 

In our response today we have an opportunity to reflect on the long road to progress walked by those before us. We can inquire into the experience of generations of black people living enslaved with their necks every moment under the boot of the white ruling class. We can empathize with disabled people undervalued for years before gaining rights they fought hard to win. We can imagine the pain of gay, lesbian, bi and trans sisters and brothers denied acceptance and rights in their families and society. We can remember innocent people who are incarcerated and wake up day after day after day facing the cold, harshness of a jail cell. We can remember the first peoples of our nation who continue to grieve the loss of their sacred lands. So rest today as you are able. Take comfort in the presence of those you love and trust. Exercise, walk, get fresh air if you can. Reach out to connect with loved ones. Tend to your health and enjoy your beloved pets. Listen to restorative music. Tomorrow our journey begins as we take our next steps in this fight. 

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