All About Bruxism / by lee tilghman

It all started in the spring of April 2018. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with extreme pain in my jaw. The soreness would continue into the day, then it spread to my back molars. Within a week, I was experiencing a constant, dull headache all day long. It all happened very fast, and I knew it was all related. With a few googles, intuitive check-ins, and a visit to my acupuncturist, I knew I was experiencing bruxism. 

Bruxism is the involuntary or habitual grinding of teeth, usually during sleep. One of the leading causes of bruxism that I will be focusing on in this post are elevated levels of emotional stress and anxiety. Unexpressed emotions or thoughts are believed to sit in the jaw (where you should be expressing them) and can cause energetic buildup, hence the clenching. This is a prime example of how our emotional wellbeing has a profound, direct impact on our physical health.

Bruxism is genetic, so if your parents clench, you’re 50% more likely to experience bruxism as some point in your life too.

My Bruxism Story

In 2013, I was told I had bruxism by my family dentist. Dentists usually detect someone’s jaw clenching first by erosion of the teeth. My dentist didn’t give me a solution to the problem, but instead told me my only option was to wear a custom $450 night guard in my mouth while I slept. It was plastic, uncomfortable, and even though it was “specifically fitted for my mouth,” it did not fit me at all and would make my teeth hurt all day long. On the nights I’d sleep with it, I’d spit it out of my mouth during my sleep and wake up with that damn night guard on my pillow. I threw it out a few weeks later, $450 down the drain.

After that period, the jaw clenching somehow lessened, or wasn’t as bad, because it went away and my dentist never mentioned it again.

But then it popped back up this April, right as I was working through some past trauma with my life coach and breaking up with my then-partner, all at the same time. It was a terribly stressful time for me emotionally and mentally, and it was ALL manifesting in my jaw. 

How does emotional stress manifest in our jaw, you ask? Many studies have shown that we clench and grind our teeth during stressful times, even throughout the day. Next time you’re in traffic, under a deadline at work, or concentrating while peeling a potato, check your jaw to see if you are clenching. 

After the bruxism diagnosis, I realized I was clenching not just in my sleep, but during the day as well. I clenched while exercising. I clenched while driving. I clenched while working. I even clenched while cooking! The tiniest little stressor or activity that required focus in my daily life caused me to clench.

The plastic night guard wasn’t actually an option since I *don’t* have dental insurance right now (freelance life, forgot to enroll, oops!). But this was a blessing in disguise, since I was forced to get to the root of the problem. 

Getting to the Root Issue

I have come a long way in my health journey since 2013, and I look at each of my health issues differently now. Instead of asking “What can I do to quickly fix this?” I ask, “How did this begin?” and "Why is it even happening?”

From this perspective, I saw a night guard as a bandaid. Instead of relying on a temporary solution, I had to figure out why I was clenching.

It didn't take a detective or even a doctor to figure out why I was clenching. The clenching began as I was going through my breakup and simultaneously working together with my life coach to get through past sexual trauma that happened when I was younger. This was bringing up tons of repressed emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and stories that I had been holding onto since I was a small child. The work my life coach and I were doing, though necessary, was affecting my sleep, stress, and emotions in very visceral and intense ways. It was work that needed to be done so that I could move on. 

When I took an honest look at myself, I realized I was holding back on unexpressed desires, thoughts and feelings. I was keeping stuff inside, and it was coming out in my jaw clenching. Once I worked up the guts and spoke my truth in my relationship, the clenching began to lessen.  It may seem overly simplified or perhaps even woo-woo to some, and trust me: I’m not saying that it’s easy to speak our truth. But if you’re currently struggling with bruxism, perhaps it’s worth asking yourself if you are keeping something inside when you know it needs to be expressed.

Doing this inner-work, along with the help of some facial massage work as I’ll describe below, completely dissipated my bruxism. Once again, I was reminded of the strong mind-body connection and how deeply our emotions affect our physical health. 

Simultaneously, I was connected to Sadie Adams of Take Care LA, an esthetician who conducts jaw tension relieving classes around LA and also performs holistic facials. Sadie is a presence. She is calm and intelligent, and you can’t help but slow down when you meet her. I saw her one-on-one for a facial, and as I laid down on her table she immediately noticed I was holding onto stress around my neck, head, and jaw (before I even told her anything about my jaw issues). “Even laying down, you can’t relax” she said. She asked if she could fix it, and I begged her to. She put a glove on and stuck her fingers in my mouth and around my gums to help release some tension.

Learning the Techniques

I immediately felt more space open up around my mouth. It was like a few inches had opened up and the tightness reduced. I felt calmer and more grounded. Not to mention, some of the pain I had been carrying around subsided. Sadie’s fingers were pure magic. I later learned that touching your body in this way releases a flush of stagnation and offers more clarity in the lymph nodes. 

A few weeks later, I signed up for one of Sadie’s workshops and showed up with my journal, pen, recording device, and all. I was so ready to take notes and absorb every word out of her mouth so I could learn how to promptly fix my bruxism because the headaches were not going away. But I was in for a big wake up call. The most helpful aspect of the workshop was not necessarily the words, but the actual, put-your-fingers-into-your-mouth exercise that we performed on ourselves. Sadie taught us how we could release and relax our own jaws.  

We pressed our fingers all around our face very slowly and calmly. We stuck our fingers into our mouths and massaged out our cheeks and gum lines. I had never actually taken the time to settle down, sit, and mindfully touch my body in this way. At first I was using firm pressure,  then Sadie said something like, “try a lighter hand, see how it goes,” and the lighter pressure seemed to take away my headaches immediately. 

At one point, a girl in the class asked, “How do we know how hard to press?” Sadie’s response? “Your body knows. You already have all the answers inside of you.”

I just loved this response. Instead of giving the girl the exact measure of how hard she should push onto her own body, Sadie granted her the permission and gave her the confidence that she needed to figure it all out on her own. It made me realize that we are already equipped with all the knowledge we need on our health journeys. It’s just a matter of giving ourselves permission to embody whatever we are seeking. 

After learning these techniques from Sadie, I incorporated them into my nightly routine. What helped me the most was doing this massage nightly during the depths of my emotional stress period. I also worked on staying aware of when I was clenching or grinding my teeth during the day. As soon as I noticed myself clenching, I’d stick my tongue in between my top and bottom teeth to relax my face. It helped me a lot.

How to Perform a Relaxing Facial Massage

In the video below, I share the facial massage techniques Sadie taught us to help ease muscle tension in your face. Keep in mind that this video is sped up to be one minute per Instagram’s guidelines, but in real time, I spent five minutes massaging out my face. I recommend doing this sort of massage for at least five minutes each night for two weeks to see how it helps you.

More Information about Bruxism

Other causes of bruxism may be: (answers adapted from Sadie’s interview in Chalkboard Mag)

  • Too much caffeine
  • Favoring one side while sleeping or sleeping without proper alignment and support
  • Grinding or gripping with teeth and/or a misaligned bite
  • Scoliosis, trauma, or injury
  • Repression and suppression
  • Unexpressed thoughts, feelings and emotions
  • Unprocessed experiences that can create holding patterns in the jaw, as well as physical strain and emotional stress
  • Stress, which can trigger excess hormone production and lead to various imbalances, including muscle tension and acne

Why is bruxism bad?

Not only can constant clenching and grinding erode your teeth, it can also lead to nerve damage, tear fragile ligaments, deteriorate enamel, and cause migraines. It will also surely drive up your dental bill, as bruxism is known to cause cracked teeth, damaged crowns, and fractured roots.

Other bruxism tips from Sadie:

“When shampooing the scalp, one can spend extra time massaging the muscles, in order to drain accumulated fluids around tight areas. I suggest taking one’s time and being sensitive. Approach this from a place of wanting to support and cleanse. This allows one to hear the timing of the tissue and what is needed to release tightness and stagnation.
Be mindful of alignment while walking, working and exercising. Noticing and correcting forward head carriage and unnecessary holding in the jaw while engaging in day-to-day activities requires attention and commitment, and will support the health of the joints.
Fully resting the weight of one’s head on the pillow before sleeping can be a way to tell your body that it doesn’t need to take the stresses of the day into the night. Feel the fluids inside of the head registering gravity and space. While actively yielding the head, soften the TMJ and release any perceived tension in the facial muscles and tongue.
Self-contentedness leads to happiness and fluid-membrane balance. Choosing gratitude and contentment can greatly decrease tension. A regular meditation practice can cultivate presence and peace, in body and mind. Meditation and breath awareness are powerful and empowering tools help to dramatically reduce day-to-day tension and stress.”

Sadie Adams is the founder of Take Care Face & Body in New York City, Take Care Center for Body Mind Regeneration in Los Angeles. Her studies in anatomy at the school for Body-Mind Centering™ and in Ayurveda and yoga therapy at the Ayurvedic Institute have led her to focus on regenerative therapies. Sadie has been sharing her insights on movement and consciousness over the last 20 years, calling on science, technology, ancient wisdom and intuitive awareness to support healing and increase human capacities.


Do you struggle with bruxism? How do you handle it? Do you notice that it pops up during more stressful periods of life?