Stress causing cracked teeth or grinding?

February 7, 2021

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.

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