Should You Just Grit Your Teeth and Bear It?

Hypnosis is not the first thing most people think about when they realize they are clenching or grinding their teeth (bruxism), but it should be. Clenching and grinding teeth happens more often than people think. Most of us have gritted our teeth from time to time and an estimated 10 to 15% of us do so habitually. Some do it only at night while asleep, others unconsciously do it during the day as well.

Our language has developed phrases for this phenomenon. “Grit your teeth and bear it.” Or “Bite the Bullet.” Think about scenes from wild west movies where a cowboy takes a shot of whisky and bites down on a stick while having a bullet removed in during the civil war, in army hospitals while an arm or leg was being amputated… yeesh. While a misaligned bite might be a cause of bruxism, often it is an unconscious, habitual response to stress and anxiety. Clenching and grinding the teeth are natural reactions to stress.

It happens more often than we think, but sadly, it’s also more damaging than we think. Habitual bruxism may result in tooth fractures and the wearing down of enamel which in turn can lead to sensitivity and the need for dental work including fillings, caps and even root-canal procedures. Tiny tissues that connect teeth to gums, called periodontal ligaments can be weakened or damaged. Other problems that come from teeth clenching and grinding are headaches, shoulder pain, back pain, difficulty chewing, increased biting of cheeks and tongue, jaw disorders and clicking or pain in the main joint of the jaw known as TMJ.

To check for bruxism, your dentist may ask you to open and close your jaw while listening and feeling for taping or clicking of the TMJ. She might feel the jaw joint while you open and close your mouth or ask you if you are experiencing soreness, pain or headaches. Once diagnosed, most often dentists will recommend wearing a bite splint also known as a mouth guard or, in more severe cases, surgery might be indicated.

Take a moment to experience the mind-body connection. Are your lips closed or open? If they are closed, are your teeth touching? If they are, you may have a tendency to clench or grind your teeth without being aware of it. (Most people aren’t aware of it.) So now, try this. With your lips closed and your teeth apart, focus your attention on your lower jaw and relax it. Feel that little shift and perhaps a little relief coming with it? That’s the mind-body connection. The mind relaxes the jaw and the relaxing of the jaw, relieves the mind.

There are over the counter and professional bite splints or mouth guards which keep teeth apart. The thing about mouth guards is that they don’t come cheaply and, more importantly, you have to wear them. They are cumbersome and difficult to get used to. Often when wearing these guards at night, people unconsciously remove them, even toss them aside. It takes practice to get used to them and until they do, some people discover they’ve sleepily tossed aside a nice, very expensive new chew toy for the family pet. (I’m not joking.)

The biggest downside to mouth guards is that they do not address the reason for grinding your teeth. The jaw muscles are powerful, and prolonged bruxism strengthens those muscles in some ways and weakens them in others. It is likely that you may have even limited the range of motion for those muscles. For some, clenching the teeth has become a normal state. Directed massage can help loosen those muscles up and begin the healing process. Three or four sessions of massage should do the trick, but if the source of your bruxism is stress and anxiety, you need to address your reactions to stressors in your life to keep bruxism at bay.

Hypnosis and mindfulness training go hand in hand to address the stress, anxiety and the habit associated with clenching and grinding the teeth. In hypnosis, we work with our unconscious habits, the things we think, feel and/or do automatically. If your automatic response to stress is to clench or grind your teeth, hypnosis can address the stress itself and the automatic response to it.

Mindfulness practice over time can help reduce lower stress and anxiety levels in general as well as raise awareness of when stress is affecting you so that you can address it in a timely manner. Since we don’t know what our future stressors might be, mindfulness practice insulates us and better prepares us for whatever might come along.

If you are considering hypnosis for bruxism, expect three to five sessions to get you to the point where habitual bruxism is no longer an issue. A good hypnotist will probably include some training in self-hypnosis and mindfulness practice. (I always do.) These are tools you can take with you so that you are better handling stress and anxiety on your own.