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What's stress got to do with it?

9 min read
by Angela Sartain |

It is one of the most dreaded, but almost guaranteed parts of our human life. Stress. We feel it from our jobs, from our families, from our friends, and even from within ourselves. For many of us, life feels filled with potential for stress at every turn. Learning to let go, relax, and live a stress-free life sounds like the ideal plan, right? A quick internet search of "ideas for stress relief" will hit you with an endless list of suggestions from medical professionals to mommy bloggers, all with different tips, tricks, hacks, and hints claiming to help you live a more stress-free life. And yet, no matter how we try, it seems that we can’t fully eliminate stress from having an impact on how we move throughout our days. (Unless of course, you are one of the fortunate few who live in a blissful, tropical paradise, with your only worry being where you last left your sunscreen.) No, much like that annoying cousin who's always a little too loud at the family gatherings, stress is something we'll never quite eliminate. 

It’s no secret that stress directly plays a role in how we feel, how often we get sick, and our general mood throughout each day. Your job becomes more demanding than it typically is, and you might notice you're more tired or irritable over the same time period. For many people, major events, such as weddings or holidays will seem to spark the onset of a minor illness. But did you know that your daily stress directly impacts the health of your teeth? Yep, you heard that right. Stress can be a primary contributor to many cases of clenching and/or grinding your teeth, or for our more technical readers, Bruxism. 

Stress and Bruxism

Any individual already dealing with any type of health condition, when they are in a state of new or atypical stress, might find that the symptoms and side effects associated with their existing conditions appear increased or exacerbated. Someone who struggles with insomnia, for example, might find that during a major life crisis, they feel unable to sleep. Or worse, can't seem to do anything but sleep! The same is true for people who already have evidence (or diagnoses) of clenching, grinding or both! 

What you might not have realized is that stress and anxiety are two of the most commonly reported causes for these sometimes damaging and problematic nighttime dental behaviors. 

An interesting fact: your brain and body work together in symbiotic harmony, though sometimes not helpful, at a subconscious level. The psychological makeup of neurons and neurotransmitters active in your brain at any given moment is to protect you from unpleasant experience and harm. 

The Psychology of Clenching/Grinding

Most people will clench their teeth from time to time. Intense concentration or stress can create a need for the brain to brace or prepare for a potential threat. One of the first steps for many therapeutic practices to aid in stress relief is to take a quick mental scan of your body to determine if your jaw is tightly clenched.  In other words, clenching can be your brain’s subtle way of gearing your body to respond in fight or flight mode. 

Ah, yes. The fight or flight response. Anytime your brain perceives a 'threat', your sympathetic nervous system triggers an acute stress response. This is your brain's way of preparing you to be ready to stand your ground (fight) or escape the situation (flight). Your brain is hardwired to respond to stress, and in many cases, those responses are physical experiences.

Positive Stress versus Negative Stress

There are varying levels of stress, along with both positive and negative forms of stress. Positive stress can be generated from things such as exercise or excitement. These stressors activate the same area of the brain, yet create a different physiological response. Negative stress, however, is perceived as a threat, as it creates an unwanted or harmful experience to the individual, whether real or perceived, and shows no preference for the variations between mental, emotional, and physical harm. 

Research has revealed that individuals who experience more negative stressful emotions, such as frustration, anger, and extreme determination, report more clenching than others. The acute stress response demands that the event will require someone to "fight" for their ability to remove or avoid the perceived harm altogether. Much like the common colloquialism "Brace yourself", in such circumstances of negative stress events, your brain sends the signal, and your teeth bear the brunt of the burden!

Similarly, grinding behaviors are more commonly associated with negative stress responses to things such as anxiety, fear, and worry. The brain’s more common response is to create motivation to action, or a need to move. It is a direct signal your brain sends you, activating adrenaline responses in accordance with the perceived degree of threat, telling you to get out of the situation! When not properly displaced, that simulated need for kinetic releases of energy can be subconsciously transferred to the jaw, resulting in the teeth moving back and forth across each other. Your brain completely disregards the pain experienced later due to these behaviors being perceived as less significant than the immediate stress experienced during the events. 

Stress during sleep

So why do these behaviors occur at night, when you're sleeping, and presumably at your most peaceful state? 

During the hours of unconsciousness, we voluntarily, or sometimes involuntarily, experience each night, the brain has a different set of guiding parameters. Much like the night shift at your local grocery store, restocking the necessary items and straightening the shelves, your brain utilizes the hours during sleep to categorize, store and dump the experiences of the previous day. While capable of taking in sights, sounds, and experiences simultaneously, your brain's ability to focus attention on more than one subject at any given time is extremely limited. Stress becomes backed up in the brain much like the shower drain that is clogged. At night, when your brain actively dumps the unnecessary parts of your day, like remembering how many red cars you passed on your morning drive, the stressful experiences you've had are being categorized, and those same signals to fight or flee are being sent, though at a much less intense degree. 

Stress and TMJ 

Contrary to popular belief, TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint) Disorders, commonly referred to as TMJ, are not simply clenching and grinding. In fact, these disorders are characterized by a function issue within the joint that hinges the upper and lower jaws. While it is not uncommon for individuals with TMJ disorders to experience clenching, grinding, or both, they are not always components or side effects experienced.

Stress can still cause the irritations and pains of TMJ disorders not associated with clenching and/or grinding. The subconscious strain exerted by the facial muscles, such as furrowing of the brow or frowning heavily, can create additional strain on the muscles surrounding the joint, leading to increased tightness, clicking, or pain. Additionally, stress can lead to individuals with TMJ disorders developing new or more intense clenching/grinding habits. 

For some, clenching and grinding behaviors can arise at the onset of a particularly stressful event, such as a major life change or disruption. Perhaps the person finds themselves temporarily unable to maintain their normal 9 hours of sleeping each night as a result of demanding deadlines and expectations. This person might develop a mild to moderate issue with clenching, grinding or both as a partial means for the body to cope withthe additional stress.

However, if the situation is temporary, once completed, the associated clenching/grinding behavior completely disappears once the aftermath of the event has resolved. These individuals might be alright using an inexpensive boil-and-bite guard found at any local pharmacy or drug store. 

For others, those who struggle with more permanent episodes of clenching and/or grinding behaviors, additional measures must be taken. While the over the counter, drug store guards are available, more intense clenchers and grinders may find that these options don’t last long and often create additional issues or problems with the already troublesome nighttime dental issues. 

Just like any suggestion you read, please always consult with your dentist or appropriate medical professionals for professional diagnosis, treatment, and advice. 

When a Night Guard can help

When stress is eating away at you, or at least your teeth, a night guard can be the first step in a self-care plan to help get your life, and more importantly your sanity, back on track! 

Our dental night guards are not meant to treat clenching, grinding, or TMJ disorders. As much as we’d like to promise to you, unfortunately, there aren't any guaranteed ways to eliminate these behaviors. What we can tell you is that our night guards will help protect your teeth from the devastating results that come with clenching or grinding your teeth. 

Our night guards act as a barrier between your upper and lower teeth. This is true regardless of what you choose to wear your night guard. It’s also a reason we don’t typically recommend wearing two guards simultaneously. 

We have a few different guard types, each with its specific function. For our more intense clenchers, we tend to lean more towards our Durable guard. The flexibility and semi-soft material are often the perfect fit for standing up to the pressure exerted by more intense clenching without being too hard on the teeth. 

If you tend to be more of an extreme grinder, the Extra Durable option is often the recommendation. The all-hard and rigid material doesn’t allow much give and stands up a bit more to the repeated back and forth motion created by grinding behaviors. 

If you fall somewhere in the middle, maybe you're a mild grinder and moderate clencher, or maybe just a mild clencher, the Hybrid guard might be right for you. The dual-layer guard offers a softer inner layer that cushions against the teeth, and a harder exterior layer to act as a more durable barrier between the upper and lower teeth. 

Regardless of what guard you choose, you can rest assured that the guard you choose will be a good investment for your wallet and your teeth!

Another benefit of wearing your guard comes from the simple peace of mind you will have in knowing that you can go to sleep with confidence that you’re doing what you can to keep your smile healthy and protected from the damaging effects of daily stress. That peace of mind alone can help reduce your stress by allowing you a better night’s sleep! 

Our recommendations for reducing stress

Here at JS Dental Lab, our team has a few go-to methodswe use when life tends to get a little chaotic or confounding! 

Dylan, co-founder, suggests a combination approach involving meditation, physical activity, and artistic activities, such as drawing. Distraction techniques often allow the mind to focus and center on something which minimizes the experiences of stress.

Customer Support Team Member Paolo suggests turning to favorite comfort food to calm the nerves. Engaging in pleasurable activities which provide familiarity and comfort can help the brain to combat those negative stressful experiences by replacing them with more pleasant ones.

Angela, Customer Support Team Member, recommends guided meditation, mindfulness, essential oils, and yoga for stress relief and positive affirmations to help with mindset. Maintaining an awareness of the physical state of being can help to keep those fight or flight manifestations in the body to a minimum. Utilizing positive affirmations can help ease stress by reminding you of the positive experiences in your life rather than focusing on those negative events. A positive attitude can have a great impact on the reduction of stress.

If you're feeling a little stressed, you can always take a few minutes to help retrain your brain to decrease the experiences by taking a quick mental scan. Take a deep breath in, close your eyes and clear your mind. Relax your jaw muscles and your shoulders, and slowly move your head from side to side while inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds. 

Whatever activity that allows you a few minutes to collect your thoughts, center yourself, and relax can become a vital part of your stress management plan. And when your teeth bear the brunt of the burden, your trusted JS Dental Lab night guard will help you in your peaceful night’s sleep. 

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