Stress is basically unavoidable right now—and that has serious effects on our physical health, too. Chronic stress has been shown to elevate resting blood pressure and suppress immunity, resulting in slower wound healing, poorer antibody responses to vaccines, and increased vulnerability to viral infections, and can contribute to coronary heart disease, hypertension, and exacerbate symptoms of autoimmune diseases. Oral health is also affected by stress. Increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol was linked with gum disease in a 2017 study; those who are highly stressed at work had more gum swelling, ulcers, and oral hypersensitivity compared to those with less stress, according to research from 2020.
“Pandemic-related anxiety is affecting our collective mental health. That stress, in turn, leads to clenching and grinding, which can damage the teeth,” Manhattan prosthodontist Tammy Chen wrote in a piece for the New York Times last month. Chen reported treating more tooth fractures in the weeks after following New York’s lockdown than she had in years. Other dentists have noticed a similar trend: In a recent American Dental Association Health Policy Institute survey, more than half of the respondents reported an increase in patient teeth grinding, cracked and chipped teeth, and jaw pain.
If you're facing something that feels particularly painful, sensitive or unmanageable, or even if you need a regular hygiene visit, go see a professional. While it may seem nerve wracking to sit in a medical office with your unmasked mouth open, dental facilities are largely taking extra precautions to ensure patients and staff are safe, like avoiding the use of powered tools which produce aerosols. If you’re concerned about safety or are unable to physically visit your dentist, many will offer a telehealth appointment to talk you through your dental concerns.
Though seeing a dentist is always best, VICE got some advice from dentists and therapists about what to do if you don't have insurance or don't feel safe going to the dentist right now, but want to alleviate minor stress-related teeth issues that might be giving you trouble right now.
If you're grinding your teeth during the day, see if there's anything the moments when you're doing that have in common.
If you’ve been under increased amounts of stress during the last few months, there’s a good chance your body’s feeling it, too. Try to see if there's any common factor in the moments when you're grinding or gritting your teeth. Once you’ve determined what triggers an anxiety-fueled behavior—for example, if you grind your teeth while reading unpleasant news—you can try and prevent these reactions.
In some cases, you may not even be conscious of your clenched jaw. Anywhere from three to eight percent of adults grind their teeth in their sleep, making it a difficult behavior to curb. If you’re waking up with a sore jaw or headaches, or are noticing wear on the biting surface of your teeth (that is, if your teeth are looking unusually smooth or uncharacteristically chipped or your bite feels off), consult with your dentist to see what kind of night guard—a mouth guard made of plastic or acrylic meant to create a barrier between your top and bottom rows of teeth—would be best for you. Night guards are available over the counter in drugstores, so you can do some research on your own to pick one out for the short-term, or can be made custom for your mouth at the dentist, so you’ve got options considering your budget and need.
It can even be helpful to admit that it's natural and fine to feel stress in what is absolutely a hellish time (at least, for everyone who isn't a billionaire with their own bunker equipped with an on-call personal dentist). For the last seven months, you’ve been dealing with something new and unprecedented every single day, therapist Laura Mueller-Anderson told VICE. Give yourself some credit for getting through it—and remind yourself of your success thus far whenever you feel particularly stressed. “Of course things are terrible right now,” she said, “and it's OK to acknowledge that.”
Take deep breaths and let your face hang loose.
When you notice your jaw clenching, be mindful to stop, take deep breaths, relax your jaw muscles, and let your jaw hang slack, dentist and American Dental Association spokesperson Matt Messina told VICE. This helps relieve the built-up physical tension we’ve been harboring in our bodies, he said. Most people will have to be particularly aware of when they're clenching, Messina said—so set periodic reminders on your phone alerting you to relax your jaw if self-awareness isn’t your strong suit.
Take a physical approach to contending with stress.
When considering our physical health, we shouldn’t overlook mental health’s impact on our bodies, Mueller-Anderson said. “If your physical health is suffering, your mental health is going to suffer, and vice versa,” she said. “If you're having physical manifestations of stress, a physical approach is a really good way to address them.”
“If something happens in your body that’s something that’s never come up for you before, that's a good clue that this could be related to your stress of everything that’s happened in the last seven months,” Mueller-Anderson said, and you might want to try basic physical approaches to helping yourself.
The easiest way to physically cope with stress is to get some exercise, Mueller-Anderson said. Whether that’s going for a run or queuing up some yoga videos on YouTube (according to research from 2017, people who practiced yoga had less tartar and other gunk on their teeth than those who didn’t do yoga), any amount of movement will help burn off some nervous energy and help you get better sleep. Try to exercise outside, if you can, and in the morning, Mueller-Anderson said, since soaking in natural light early in the day has been linked to more restful sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is essential; in a study from this year, participants with self-reported sleep disorders had more gum bleeding, a harder time chewing food, and an overall lower perception of their own oral health.
Adjust your work area.
In the name of oral health, give your work area a tune-up, too. Crouching over your laptop in bed or slouching in an uncomfortable dining room chair is not only terrible for your posture but can cause jaw pain, Messina said. “Jaw muscles are in the front of the face, but they're also intimately connected with the muscles in the back of our head and where they hold our head upright,” he said. “If we’re sitting on the couch with a computer in our lap and we’re hunched over, our lower jaw hangs forward, which can cause jaw muscle irritation.” Make sure you’re sitting upright with good posture and take frequent breaks to walk around and stretch during the work day.
Try to avoid eating a ton of sugar.
If you find yourself stress-eating junk food as a means of coping with These Times, try to avoid gummy snacks which stick to the teeth more than other sugary treats, like chocolate, Messina said. Bacteria in the mouth breaks down sugar and creates acid, which destroys tooth enamel—so lingering candy residue that’s stuck to teeth creates the perfect environment for cavities, Messina said.
Don’t forget the basics of oral hygiene.
Without a morning commute or nighttime unwind, some of your habits surrounding oral care may have fallen by the wayside. “Our rhythm of our daily lives has changed,” Messina said. “Instead of getting up, brushing our teeth, and going to work, if we’re sitting on the couch with the computer, it's easy to sometimes get out of rhythm. It's important to keep our life on a standard pace, eating on a normal schedule, and brushing after breakfast.” So even if you’re forgoing your nighttime skincare regimen, don’t skip your evening brush and floss: Stress can result in sores in gum tissue or on the roof of the mouth, Messina said, so maintaining proper health hygiene is still important, even if everything feels useless.
Dental health, like everything stress-related at the moment, means taking extra care, and being extra thoughtful toward, yourself and your body. Cut yourself some slack and take some deep breaths—and don’t forget to floss.
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