When Stress Hurts

April is Stress Awareness Month. Stress is a natural part of life, but what happens when it becomes such a concern that it causes physical discomfort or pain?

For many, stress triggers a physical reaction that can range from increased blood pressure, upset stomach and even clenching the jaw. Clenching or grinding of the teeth is called bruxism and can be so damaging that it can actually lead to cracked and fractured teeth says Dr. John Pappas, DDS, of Arcadia Dental Arts in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Sometimes, people with anxiety and high levels of stress don’t even realize they’re clenching their jaw or grinding their teeth because it occurs at night. They may wake up with a headache, stiff or painful jaw or fatigues facial muscles,” Pappas said. “Treating the source of stress and anxiety is important, but in the meantime a custom mouth guard can be made to protect teeth from the extensive damage that can result from the pressure of clenching and grinding.”

Over time, bruxism can potentially cause or exacerbate TMJ disorders. The temporomandibular joint connects your jaw to your skull and can be felt by placing your fingers in front of your ears as you open and close your mouth.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, over 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ disorders and many more go undiagnosed. TMJ disorder can be characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Jaw pain, tightness or fatigue
  • Ringing in ears or ear pain
  • Difficulty chewing or speaking
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Pain or tension in the head, neck and shoulders

Learning to cope with stress starts with being aware that it’s causing you problems. Next, find out what aspects of your life are causing you the most stress. For most people, work is the number one stressor. Finally, discover ways that work best for you for reducing your stress each day and ways to cope in the heat of the moment when faced with particularly stressful situations. Here are a few things you can try to make your days less stressful or cope with stresses you can’t change:


A study in the International Journal of Stress Management discovered that floating in water can help trigger your body’s relaxation response and reduce stress hormone levels. If you don’t have a pool, join a gym with one so you can have a few minutes a day of both physical and mental weightlessness.


With screens in our face all day long sending us messages and creating a traffic jam of information in our brains, it’s actually becoming harder and harder for us to just turn off. Starting the day off and ending it with just a few minutes of silent reflection can set the mood for the day and for a night of restful sleep. There are many videos online that can teach you the process and many yoga studios offer classes.

Take a Walk

When you’re busy and stressed the last thing you’re thinking about is dropping everything to go for a walk. It may sound silly, but it’s actually the norm for many people in other countries. The fresh air and quiet actually rejuvenates your mind. You may find yourself far more productive after just a 10-15 minute walk than you would have been had you kept working through it.

Stress means something different for everyone as does coping with it. Keep looking for ways to calm and center yourself until you find the one that works best for you. You can even use April, the month of Stress Awareness, to try a new method each day until you find one that sticks.

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