A huge number of Americans are using this terrible habit to cope with stress

There’s been no shortage of issues and developments to worry about over the past 12 months. So, while it shouldn’t surprise anyone that American stress levels are through the roof nowadays, the findings of a recent dental survey suggest many among us need to find some healthier coping strategies.

Researchers at the American Dental Association surveyed a group of dentists from all over the nation, and over 70% said they’ve seen a big increase in patients dealing with excessive teeth grinding or clenching so far in 2021. These findings gel with a similar survey put together by the ADA in the fall of 2020. Back then, that research found that roughly 60% of U.S. dentists were seeing more patients with issues related to teeth-grinding.

“Our polling has served as a barometer for pandemic stress affecting patients and communities seen through the eyes of dentists,” says Marko Vujicic, Ph.D., chief economist, and vice president of the ADA Health Policy Institute. “The increase over time suggests stress-related conditions have become substantially more prevalent since the onset of COVID-19.”

When we’re feeling on edge, we tend to tense up. Our mouths are no different. Just like so many other stress-induced quirks, like knuckle cracking or pacing, teeth grinding is an activity millions fall back on during stressful moments without even consciously realizing it.

For a moment or two, clenching one’s teeth is no big deal. But, if you’ve been grinding your teeth every day since April 2020, it’s going to catch up to you in the form of dental problems.

Moreover, just over 60% of surveyed dentists also report treating more stress-connected dental issues related to teeth grinding, such as chipped or damaged teeth, and TMD-related (temporomandibular joint disorder) symptoms including jaw pain or headaches.

“As the pandemic continues, dentists are seeing stress-related dental conditions more and more,” adds Marcelo Araujo, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D., ADA chief science officer. “It’s more important than ever for people to maintain their dental health, including seeing the dentist regularly to address any issues that could have long-term impact.”

Stress is an especially frustrating roadblock in life because we all know how to beat it in theory, but doing so in practice is an entirely different story. Stress, thanks to our species’ evolutionary history, tells the human body to tense up and get ready, invoking the “fight-or-flight” response ingrained in ancient humans back when such decisions were literally a matter of life or death.

Placed within a modern context, though, the stress response is more a hindrance than a help. Across the vast majority of contemporary stressful situations, from troubles making bill payments to a traffic jam on the way home from work, staying calm is a far more advantageous reaction than getting more and more worked up.

So, we all know it’s pretty much always a better idea to stay calm, but that is much easier said than done. Frequent teeth grinders probably think their habit is a fairly healthy way of coping with stress, but these survey results show that regular teeth clenching will lead to dental problems in most instances. 

The next time you take a moment to breathe during a stressful episode, make sure you’re relaxing your mouth along with the rest of you.