I was 12 years old on a trip with my club soccer team the first time I realized that I was a “teeth grinder.” It was my roommate and fellow teammate who informed me that it sounded like I was crunching my teeth in my sleep. I was completely unaware this had been happening, and it wasn’t until after college that I religiously started wearing a night guard to prevent teeth grinding. By that time, my teeth had already suffered mild irreversible damage, evident by the micro-cracks and loss of enamel on the edges of my front teeth.
Studies have shown that teeth grinding is prevalent in 10-20% of the population, and unfortunately, people who never wear a night guard may lose up to 75-80% of their tooth structure over time. Contrary to popular belief, the loss of tooth structure from grinding is not a natural occurring process that happens with age. In severe cases, people as young as 35 years old have already lost half of their front teeth. On the other hand, I have seen 80 year old patients with little to no signs of tooth loss. In most cases, stress and anxiety is either an underlying factor or the primary cause of teeth grinding. In light of the recent events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, levels of stress and anxiety are likely to increase in the average person, thereby increasing the risk for teeth grinding. In order to better understand how stress leads someone to physically grind their teeth, I have asked clinical psychologist, Dr. Carey Incledon, to provide her knowledge on this topic.
“Dr. Carey Incledon (“Dr. Carey”) is the owner of Insight Psychology Center, Inc., in Newport Beach, and has been practicing for 10 years. She is also the 2020 President of the Orange County Psychological Association. Dr. Carey specializes in providing compassionate and scientifically supported individual and group psychotherapy, Gottman Method Couples Therapy, and personal growth and skills groups. She specializes in trauma treatment, depression and anxiety, and relationship issues.”
Most people would agree that what goes on in our minds can affect the way we feel in our bodies. When we experience certain types of stressful situations, our brains prepare our bodies to respond by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream (i.e., adrenalin). These chemicals cause physical changes, such as an increased heart rate and decreased digestive activity. This response prepares the body for fighting off an attacker or running away from a harmful situation.
This physiological reaction is pretty useful if you are stressed because a bear is running toward you in the forest. But if the stress is caused by a different type of threat (e.g., worry about the results of a blood test or frustration about not being able to find basic essentials in the grocery store) this “fight-or-flight” response is not very useful and leaves some of us with uncomfortable sensations such as muscle tension, an upset stomach, and, yes, in some people, it can lead to teeth grinding while sleeping (or even during the day).
During the current COVID-19 situation, almost everyone seems to be increasingly stressed, scared, frustrated, or just plain bored. All of these emotions can increase your anxiety level, negatively affect your health, and maybe even cause (or worsen) teeth grinding. Consider improving your ability to manage anxiety by learning new coping skills. For instance, check out relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness apps (e.g., Headspace, Balance, Calm); try scheduling at least 30 minutes at the end of each day to wind down and relax before bed (e.g., dim the lights, light candles, take a shower or bath, read); or try one of the exercises I have posted on my website’s blog (“Finding Health in the Face of the Coronavirus”) at www.