The grinding 21st century stress response

I’m grinding my teeth. I had no idea that I was doing it until my last check up at the dentist. She simply said: “Oh I can see your teeth are pretty worn down. Looks like you’re grinding at night. Probably stress.” A quick shrug, and on she went with her dental cleansing procedures.

While I was still chewing on what she had just said, as an afterthought, she casually added: “Might be worth looking into getting a teeth guard. Many people have one.”

I couldn’t talk with all the tools in my mouth, so I had time to think. And the longer I thought, the more I felt there was something really, really wrong with this conversation.

Of course I was getting worried about my teeth. But that’s just on a personal level. From a broader perspective, what does it mean if dentists look at worn down teeth, shrugging, brushing it all off? Is it considered “normal” that we’re creating self-destructive habits to cope with the grinding stress of our gadget addicted, 21st century lifestyle?

It's easy to sit here, meditate and be stress free. But what about "normal" life?

It’s easy to sit here, meditate and be stress free. But what about “normal” life?

The conversation at my dentist reminded me of the book “A life worth breathing” by Max Strom. Over decades he has been working with people who try to heal themselves through yoga and has come across some who have to spend several minutes every morning on “unlocking their jaw”: they wake up with their jaw muscles so tense that they are simply unable to eat or drink!

It was one of those reading moments where you’d just think “come on, really?” – but my dentist’s reaction is proof that we’re talking about a trend (or disease, if you like) that’s clearly coming towards us like a massive wave. (I’ve heard of conversations between managers where you’re being looked upon with suspicion if you don’t already have a teeth guard. I mean, come on, your job isn’t stressful – implication: important – or what?…)

Balance - the key to joyful living?

Balance – the key to joyful living?

But it doesn’t stop here. The truly worrying bit is this: The proposed way of fixing the problem is inserting a piece of rubber into your mouth that stops you from grinding your teeth. It’s similar to what they do with horses who swallow air because they’re terribly bored in their tiny shoebox-sized stables: Tying a band around their neck that prevents them from doing it.

But what happens next? Exactly, they resort to things like continuously swinging their head from side to side. For us humans, there are ample opportunities to engage in similar things, among them biting nails, chewing on pens, twisting or pulling out hair – the possibilities are endless.

It feels like instead of asking ourselves how we can manage our stress we actually manage the symptoms.

I’ve decided that a good starting point is increasing the time I sit in meditation. As the saying goes:

If you have time, sit for 20 minutes every day. If you don’t have time, sit for one hour.

What are the signs telling you that life has been too stressful recently? And what are your strategies to cope?

Wishing you a stressless, relaxing weekend,

~ Andrea

Image credit here and here.

12 replies »

  1. This post really resounded with me as a former teeth grinder. I got the dentist talk about stress and I got the $500 mouth guard. And found that the guard only served as a mask for the real problem. It actually made the problem worse than ever as my sleeping body was still seeking the sensation of grinding and I would clench my jaw harder and wake up tense and sore. In the end I took away the mouth guard and took away the pillow and worked on the alignment of my neck and shoulders. Success!


    • I’m very glad you left this comment! I had decided against the mouth guard as it seemed tackling the issue from the wrong side, and your experience makes me think there’s some truth in it. Thanks for reading and your insight!



  2. I am most taken with the quote (“if you have time to sit…”) It’s so true that we just need to slow down. Though I’ve been taking good care of myself, I was awake in the night- a sure sign that things are out of balance.


  3. Love this post! I have been a teeth grinder for years as I have learned I am sensitive to OTHER peoples energies. Even if I am not feeling stressed of anxious if someone around me is, I tense up. Practicing meditation has helped tremendously and kudos to you for saying no to pills and symptom managers, getting right down to the root cause. Our human culture has a long way to go to recover from the easy route of spoiled luxuries.. it has made us incredibly weak.


    • I’ll stick with the mantra “don’t medicate, meditate” 🙂
      Isn’t it crazy how all of today’s luxuries (computer, cell phone etc.) can make our lives simply more stressful instead of helping us?


  4. This is a familiar convo to me too! It’s truly awful how ‘stressed’ and ‘busy’ have become our default responses to ‘how are you?’ And are somehow a badge of honour or a sign of being important or worthy.


  5. This is so true. I am one of those people who has a mouth guard; I, too, was grinding my teeth without even realizing it. I totally agree with you. It’s not a real solution. What we need to do is figure out the problem and the causes of stress, and work to solve those, rather than just using a quick fix piece of rubber. But in the meantime, until I get those fixed, this mouth guard will have to do haha


  6. Yep, you’re right, Andrea, there was something wrong with that conversation. Just the fact that our culture considers it fine and normal to be stressed enough to grind your teeth about is something to be concerned about. When I get stressed I get cranky, and my back tightens up or gives way. The answer? Yoga as always 🙂


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