Open up and say, “Om”: Stress and its Effects on your Mouth

When it comes to stress, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that our bodies have the perfect response system to help us survive life-threatening situations. Our “fight or flight” mechanism helps us react when a toddler runs toward the road or when we accidentally touch a hot stove. The bad news is that our bodies are not designed to tolerate the ongoing psychological stress that more of us are affected by (e.g., those work emails you’re still reading at night and on weekends or the constant pondering how to pay off your student loans). Because of prolonged exposure to life’s modern day stressors, our body’s stress hormones tend to stay at high levels, and this is a recipe for disaster— not only to our immune system, but also to our mouths.

The link between stress and dental health is undeniable. Because stress affects our immune system, the risk of periodontal disease increases as the immune system fails to keep bacteria at healthy levels. Not only does stress make us more prone to infection, it causes us to hold tension in our mouth, too. So while some of us may need our shoulders rubbed at the end of a stressful day, others may need to release our jaw muscles.

Teeth grinding, also known as bruxism, along with temporomandibular disorders (TMD) involving the joint where the jaw and skull meet, are two of the most common and serious mouth conditions reported by people living with chronic stress. Bruxism can damage tooth enamel leading to painful nerve exposure and tension headaches. TMD can also cause painful popping of the joint and difficulty chewing and swallowing. Other annoying oral side effects of stress include canker sores and dry mouth syndrome.

If you’re experiencing symptoms like increased tooth sensitivity, headaches, jaw popping or other mouth pain, we certainly want to discuss it with you and your dentist. Together we can figure out whether you’d benefit from something like a nighttime mouth guard to keep you from clenching your jaw and grinding your teeth. In the meantime, and in addition to any interventions like this, we’d like to share a few tips for overall stress management.

  1. Figure out what you can control and what you can’t. Make a list of the circumstances in life that cause the most stress. Determine which of them you can actually influence, and which you can’t. For those that you can change, do so! Even small changes can add up to make a difference on your stress levels. Notice how many things you don’t have control over, and then consider how to pay less attention to them. When they come to mind, make a habit of shifting your focus onto memories or circumstances that bring you joy and comfort. We suggest keeping a list of things you are grateful for in your purse/wallet. (Try pulling that list out instead of going onto Facebook when you’re looking for a distraction!)
  2. Protect your sleep! Sleep is undervalued in our culture as a protective factor for our mental health. If you’re experiencing extra stress in life, do not be afraid to prioritize your sleep like it’s your job. Those eight hours of high quality rest will improve your emotional stability and help you make better decisions throughout the day.
  3. Learn how to surf the waves of life circumstances. Every one of us experiences ups and downs in life until our last day on earth. Sometimes simply accepting that fact and choosing not to push away from difficulty and disappointment can be enough to help us relax, go with the flow, and ride the ups and downs with grace and, even, joy!

We all experience stress, but if you find it affecting your teeth, mouth and jaw, you do not have to handle that alone. Talk to us and together we’ll find coping methods that keep you flashing that beautiful, healthy smile.

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