I recently got a night guard to help me refrain from clenching my teeth while sleeping. Chronic jaw, neck, and shoulder pain had not been helped by some of the other interventions I tried. So the night guard was the next logical step. Four weeks into wearing it religiously every night I had gained some relief. However, the jaw pain was still there.
Fast forward to four weeks later… I’m back at the dentist’s office for a routine check up and cleaning. “The night guard has helped, I’m not experiencing as much pain as before, but still there is jaw pain”, I tell my dental hygienist as I lie back in the chair. She proceeds to tell me I might be clenching during the day too! Apparently it is really common in today’s desk dwelling culture, along with global feelings of stress, uncertainty, and productivity pressures, to be constantly contracting the jaw muscles and clenching the teeth. So much so that people are now wearing corrective mouth gear almost 24-7 to help remedy the problem.
In between her cleaning my mouth, I chuckled, “That’s kinda comical.” Instead of questioning and trying to address the root-source of the problem (i.e.: stress), we slap a band-aid (in this case, a mouth guard) on it. We look towards quick and immediate external fixes to cure longstanding and internal (personal) challenges.
About stress resilience
So that visit with my dental hygienist really got me thinking. Resilience, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is:
“an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”
It brought me back to this TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal. Basically, she proposes that we need to change our relationship to stress instead of stressing about how to rid ourselves of it. Because removing stress completely from our lives is an impossible task. Subsequently, since viewing that talk a few years ago, I’ve changed my language regarding this topic from a theme of stress management to stress resilience.
But Michelle, you ask, what does this have to do with mouth guards and jaw pain? Well, maybe if we changed our relationship to stress, the jaw wouldn’t need a piece of molded acrylic to handle the weight of our anxieties and overwhelm all the time, day-and-night. Perhaps, if we:
- Become more aware of our stressors
- Meet them head on (with compassion)
- To understand how we usually react (physical, emotional or otherwise) to those stressors
Then, we might find new ways to effectively be with stress. In this way, the stress could be an opportunity to become more resilient.
An Embodied Response
When I reflected back on what could have been the stress that showed up for me as musculoskeletal pain, I realized it was felt pretty soon after I started back to school, after a 20+ year “hiatus” (more on that here). Clenching my teeth and contracting my fascial muscles was my embodied response to the many worries (and realities) of a major life change. Making that connection now has me considering the ways I can adapt to the challenges of being a mature student.
First, I’ve acknowledged that, although I made a good (for me) choice to become a student again, it’s natural for me to be stressed. Stress is inevitable, in this circumstance and in life. The question is:
How am I going to respond so that the stress does not take over?
Bodies are amazing in so many ways. They have the ability to take on all kinds of stress and to bounce back from adversity. Also fascinating is that our bodies tell us when enough is enough. I’m choosing to heed the call of what my body needs:
- Do I need more rest?
- Does the jaw need some gentle movement, restorative yoga or self-massage?
- Do I need to do more conscious and relaxing breathing?
- Does my body need to move more vigorously (i.e.: running or swimming) so as to move the tension out?
I’m still using the mouth guard at night. My body still needs that support, which is totally ok. But I’d prefer not to wear a mouth guard during the day too! Instead, I want to:
- Practice being more connected to my body’s experience of stress
- Kindly acknowledge that stress is part of life but I don’t have to succumb to it completely
- Continue to use my movement practices as a tool for self-care and bouncing back from stressful moments
Any kind of physical pain is a signal to listen, instead of ignoring the pain altogether or putting a proverbial band-aid on it. Stress might be a way for us to build awareness, find strength and practice self-care.