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Published on April 12, 2022

woman clenching teeth

Clenching Your Jaw? Here’s What it Might Mean

We all get stressed. We all show that stress physically in different ways.

For many, clenching the jaw and grinding teeth is how the things on their mind become the way the body is responding to the stress.

“Our emotions show up physically,” said Wallace Jackmon, PhD, LP, a Clinical Psychologist and Avera Psychology Director with Avera Medical Group University Psychiatry Associates in Sioux Falls. “Some people sweat, others pick their skin – but whatever happens, it shows that mind-body connection.

“All living organisms have to remove waste, and there’s emotional and cognitive waste that can flood our brains,” Jackmon said. “That’s when we might clench our jaws or grind our teeth.”

Tension that settles in the jaw can lead to physical problems like tension headaches, damage our teeth or even lead to dysfunction in the joint near our ears. Finding ways to fix the root cause is a good place to start.

Stop the Cycle of Stress

First, do a self-inventory to help determine what’s causing your stress. Jackmon said not every situation is one we can just “deal with.” Instead, he suggests these ideas:

  • Get help from a trusted clinician. Talking to a professional scares a lot of people, but it can really help,” Jackmon said.
  • Receive that help – don’t look into it and then not make an appointment. Don’t be afraid: mood disorders, anxiety and depression are common for everyone.
  • Exercise more; even short walks can clear the mind or help cope with stress. When you get your heart rate up, it can really calm worries and change focus to something else, Jackmon said.

“Get outside more, and try to expand your network of friends and family,” Jackmon said. “The key to overcoming stress is interrupting it before it ends up leading to your jaw pain or headaches. Sometimes you need help doing that.”

Physical Damage of Jaw Clenching

Jaw clenching can cause other issues.

“People often present with what they think is an ear infection,” said Amanda Young, DO, Avera Medical Group family medicine physician. Clenching the jaw can lead to disorders of the joint that helps us chew and talk, the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) that is located just below our ears.

Young explained that unconscious clenching and grinding also can destroy the hard layer of protection in our teeth. “If your teeth are becoming more sensitive or you have more cavities, it could be a sign of these behaviors,” she said.

Setting reminders or trying to be more present can help stop these actions. “Am I clenching my jaw now?” she said. “If you find yourself saying yes, then ask yourself why.”

A conversation with a professional can help you with worries. Find a behavioral health doctor near you.

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