What Teeth Grinding Reveals About Your Psyche
The underlying causes behind this nighttime menace
According to the American Sleep Association, about 10% of people suffer from teeth grinding, also known as bruxism, and researchers believe the number of patients suffering from it has increased in recent years. While there are a number of medical and lifestyle causes for bruxism, teeth grinding can also be a window into your psyche — and a sign that you may need to reduce stress.
There are several risk factors for unwanted jaw movement: Medications (like some antidepressants, antipsychotics, and amphetamines), along with tobacco, caffeine, alcohol, or recreational drug use can cause people to grind their teeth at night. Age also plays a role; grinding teeth is fairly common among young children and, in most cases, it dissipates by adulthood.
But stress is another important culprit behind many cases of teeth grinding. For adults, scientific literature shows a significant relationship between stress levels and bruxism. For example, people who grind their teeth generally report more anxiety and depression symptoms than those who don’t grind, and teeth grinders (or “bruxers”), also tend to be more stressed and suffer from clinical depression and anxiety disorders. One 2019 study showed people who suffer from bruxism have higher levels of stress hormones in their bodies, and recent research has found that before a person enters a grinding episode, their brain activity and heart rate may rise, implying that the nervous system plays a role in bruxism.
That the nervous system has a role in teeth grinding means that teeth grinding isn’t always purely a physical issue, but can also be a psychological one. The body and mind are deeply intertwined. “A lot of people manifest mental health symptoms in a physical way and don’t connect the two,” says Vaile Wright, PhD, Director, Research and Special Projects at the American Psychological Association. “Often, people will have headaches or stomach problems, and sometimes these things have a mental health cause instead of a physical cause.”
Why is it that stress so profoundly impacts the body? Matthew Cooper, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, says that when a person perceives a threat in their…