By Sophie Bishop
Teeth grinding has long been seen as a sign of stress, though the actual causality between stress and bruxism is something that’s rarely talked about in the world of popular science.
If you’re starting to experience the symptoms of bruxism, or you’re worried about how stress could be affecting your sleep in general, then this article aims to shed a little more light on the subject.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at how stress can lead to nighttime teeth grinding, and some of the best ways to manage the stress associated with bruxism.
The Relationship Between Bruxism and Stress
Though bruxism can have many causes, various studies have shown an increased incidence of self-reported bruxism in adults who also report stress and anxiety. While the jury’s still out on whether or not stress can actually cause bruxism, there’s little doubt that these two conditions are related.
There are various explanations for the relationship between bruxism and stress. Here are two of the most common:
The Fight or Flight Response
In times of stress, people exhibit physical changes such as dilated pupils, faster breathing, and most pertinently, the tensing of muscles.
These days, stress is rarely caused by an encounter with some kind of predator, but hormones like cortisol and the activation of our sympathetic nervous system will still work to get our bodies ready for action.
Just like elsewhere, the muscles in your jaw can tense up as part of the fight or flight response in reaction to stress, causing you to subconsciously grind your teeth together.
It’s widely known that stress can make it harder to get to sleep and bring down the overall quality of your rest while you’re sleeping. In the same vein, there’s evidence to suggest that getting poor quality sleep can increase the likelihood of nighttime bruxism.
One study from 2016 found that most sleep bruxism episodes happen in the light stages of non-REM sleep, with only <10% of episodes occurring during REM. REM is a hugely important phase of the sleep cycle that helps with retaining memory, emotional processing, and healthy brain development in children.
Because REM is the final stage of sleep, and stress can keep a person from achieving REM sleep on a healthy, regular basis, it’s easy to see how poor-quality sleep brought on by stress can lead to more pronounced issues with nighttime teeth grinding.
Ways to Manage Stress-Related Bruxism
Now that we understand how increased stress can intensify bruxism, here are a few of the most effective proven ways to manage stress and mitigate the effects of stress-related sleep conditions.
Get More Exercise
Like countless other common health issues, one of the best ways to combat stress is to get more exercise.
Many studies have shown the positive effects that regular exercise can have on people’s mental health and ability to manage stress. For example, one 2020 study involving 185 students showed that performing aerobic exercise for just 2 days per week led to a significant reduction in the perceived stress of the participants. What’s more, there’s an increasing bank of evidence to show that a heavily sedentary lifestyle can increase stress and sleep disturbances.
Though it can be hard to fit into a busy schedule, making more time for exercise, even if it’s something as light as walking or cycling, can be a miracle worker for stress levels. Wilderness therapy is a specific type of adventure therapy that’s proven to work wonders for teenagers when struggling to address mental health concerns. Generally, it takes place in uninhabited areas in nature, often far from urban environments. Groups are immersed in the outdoors, usually for a lengthy amount of time. This type of therapy helps destress individuals through spending time in nature, taking part in physical activities and, as a result, is an excellent way to reduce the risk of stress-related bruxism.
Limit your Screen Time
Smartphones, laptops, and other devices are a universal part of life now, but using them in excess can be a major source of stress.
Since the 2010s, many studies have been carried out which have highlighted a correlation between excessive phone usage and increased stress, anxiety, and other mental health difficulties.
Overuse of screens in general has long been associated with poor-quality sleep as well, which itself has been known to exacerbate stress and symptoms like bruxism.
Most people could benefit from reducing their regular screen time, and if you’re living with stress-related bruxism, it could be an effective way to reduce its effects.
Setting rules for yourself such as keeping your phone out of your bedroom, or setting time limits on certain time-draining apps, can be a great way to start cutting back on screen time and encouraging a better quality of sleep. From there, you may want to try new hobbies that don’t involve the use of your phone, such as reading and meditation, to fill more of your time with healthier ways of winding down.
In a world where our phones are the first and last thing we see each day, cutting yourself off from your devices can be a challenge. However, with a little self-control, many people will find that it greatly improves their sleep cycle and overall health.
Seek Professional Help
Last, but certainly not least, seeking professional help for your mental health is a perfectly viable solution for combating the stress at the root of your bruxism.
This can be a daunting prospect for people who have never actively addressed their mental health before. However, it’s important to remember that roughly one in ten Americans received some kind of counseling or treatment for their mental health in 2020, that the stigma around discussing mental health is diminishing every year, and most importantly, that seeking treatment could make a world of difference to your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
From short, occasional sessions through online counseling services to a stay at a mental health rehabilitation center, there’s a huge range of options for professional treatment to help people deal with stress, anxiety, and other conditions which may exacerbate bruxism.
There are also sleep medicine specialists and sleep dentists that can help you treat and prevent dental decay due to sleep-related bruxism. Choosing the right kind of treatment for you can take some trial and error, but once you find it, the insights and self-care techniques you’ll learn can offer an immense benefit to both your quality of sleep and overall well-being.
Bruxism brought on or intensified by stress can cause an array of related health difficulties for those who experience it, and with modern Americans experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, it could soon become a much more prevalent issue among the general public.
If you’re experiencing stress-related bruxism, we hope this post has given you a better understanding of the condition and helped you find a way of managing it that works for you.
Medical review by Rafael J. Sepulveda, MD, DABOM
Sophie Bishop is a medical journalist. Sophie aims to spread awareness through her writing around issues to do with mental health and wellbeing and is looking to connect with an engaged audience. Contact Sophie via her website: https://sophiebishop.uk/.