Life, Stress and Dental Problems

by Dr Rachel Hall B.Ch.D (Uni Leeds), LDSRCS(Eng), MACNEM, Dental Surgeon, Brisbane, Australia


“Stress is a reaction people have when excessive pressure or demands are placed upon them, and arises when an individual believes they are unable to cope.”

At one time or another, we’ve all dealt with the effects of chronic stress, from migraines and backaches to anxiety and depression. We all know that stress can impact the immune system – how often do we happen to get sick or catch a cold when we are stressed or run down? But what is not commonly understood is that stress and our response to it can also impact on the mouth, teeth, jaws and gums as well as our overall emotional and physical wellbeing. It is not possible to point to a particular dental problem and say it’s caused entirely by stress but like the rest of the body, the mouth can be affected.

Now, not everyone is swinging from one major life crisis to another yet the prevalence of people stating they are stressed or are affected by stress related disorders and problems is enormous across all ages and social backgrounds. Why is this? What is going on in our lives that stress is so widespread and common? Could it be that modern life, our hectic lifestyles and how we see, deal with and perceive life, impacts on our level of stress and our ability to cope with it or not?

“Any idiot can face a crisis, it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”               (Anton Chekov)

The majority of causes of stress that we face on a day-to-day basis are not as extreme as major life events. The day-to-day causes of stress such as those daily, minor irritations like misplacing our car keys, traffic jams, minor arguments with family/colleagues, etc could be regarded as daily hassles. Research by Lazarus and Folkman (1984), at the University of California, indicated that it was the daily hassles rather than the major life events that affected us the most. Life events do not occur every day, but daily hassles do and it’s this constant daily frustration due to minor issues that cause us the most stress, because they occur so regularly and can therefore  undermine our health. Think of some of the things that get under your skin on a regular basis – things like waiting in line, time pressures, lack of sleep, noise, your job, money, your kids, relationships, getting meals ready, being stuck in traffic, shopping and so on, in fact the things that simply make up life. Then consider – how do you react to them?

We tend to think that stress is solely caused by external events, situations and people, yet this is not strictly correct. Research has found that the Transactional Model of Stress is more accurate. This model says that stress is caused by an interaction between the stressor, our view of the stressor and our perceived ability to cope with it. It’s our own internal beliefs, attitudes, expectations, interpretations, perceptions and other factors such as our personality, levels of self esteem and need for control or perfectionism, in combination with the external events that tend to create stress.

Too much stress may not only spoil your mood, it can also spoil your health and your smile. There is mounting evidence that there is a strong link between stress and gum disease and dental health. It is proposed that elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which impacts on immune health along with digestion and sugar regulation is a major player in stress induced illness. Oral health is determined by various factors including stress, which can play a major part in oral disease by leading to inappropriate lifestyle choices that can adversely affect oral health. For example, things like neglecting oral health habits along with an increase in unhealthy habits such as lack of exercise, poor diet, increased alcohol, sugar, caffeine and tobacco consumption and lack of sleep are all detrimental to oral health.

During times of stress cortisol is released and works to reduce inflammation in the body; however, when inflammation becomes chronic, the level of cortisol continues to soar, wreaking havoc on the body’s immune system and its ability to deal with infections. The body’s response to uncontrolled infection (like gum disease) can lead to many other problems such as increased susceptibility to colds and other illnesses, heart disease, high blood pressure, increased risk of cancer, tendency to develop food allergies, increased risk of gastrointestinal problems and increased risk of autoimmune disease.

As the cortisol level of the body increases the body produces acid, which alters the acidity level of the saliva. Increased acidity levels in the mouth create an environment for bacteria to proliferate and thrive making us more prone to infection, gum disease and dental decay. Also, stress can cause your body to flush out minerals like calcium from your body, minerals which are found in bones and teeth. This leaching of minerals combined with a more acidic and bacteria rich environment means stress makes us more susceptible to dental cavities and suppression of the immune system leads to an increased risk for developing or worsening gum problems along with more systemic conditions.

The potential impact from stress and anxiety on oral health is surprising and ranges from clenching or grinding of teeth (bruxism); facial pain, mouth sores including mouth ulcers and cold sores and poor oral hygiene, through to increased gum problems and dental decay.

Grinding or bruxism can be extremely damaging to the jaws and teeth, causing soreness when eating and difficulty chewing, chipped, worn or cracked teeth plus facial pain. Bruxism most commonly occurs at night, so it’s not something you can consciously control and grinding your teeth leads to disturbed or poor quality sleep and jaw pain on waking. It has been linked to work stress (Journal of Community Dentistry and Epidemiology) and personality type (Journal of Behavioural Medicine). The personality type study found that people who were shy, apprehensive and given to worry, tended towards bruxism, which can have devastating effects on teeth and may require extensive corrective treatment.

Managing stress is important to maintaining good oral health, and the Centre for Disease Control identified stress as one of the top risk factors for gum (periodontal) disease. In some instances, people may be so hindered by stress and anxiety and depression that they simply neglect oral hygiene. In a 2009 study in the Journal of Periodontology, 56 percent of test subjects reported that stress led them to disregard regular brushing and flossing. Other studies found that emotional factors played a significant role in the development of adult gum (periodontal) disease. Researchers also discovered that the severity of gum disease increased with amount of stress experienced and those at greatest risk for gum disease were those who were highly emotional in dealing with financial problems.

Stress can also cause mouth sores and ulcers, which are painful little swellings that appear inside the mouth. The exact cause of ulcers is not fully understood but stressful episodes can bring them out. Stress can lead to recurrent cold sores and make existing ones worse. According to a report in General Dentistry Journal, studies show that students have a high prevalence of mouth ulcers, yet the ulcers appear less frequently during breaks and after graduation, when stress levels are lower.

Regular visits to the dentist are the best way of pinpointing stress-related dental problems before they flare up.

However, what about the more wide ranging implications of stress on our health and daily interactions? The most effective approach would be to address the root of the problem and remove the source of the stress. But most of our stresses happen in daily life and unless we all start living like hermits, it would be impossible to remove all sources of stress completely.

Consequently, the most sensible approach would be to make an internal shift that allows us to be more of who we are and less affected by that which is happening around us. But how do we do this? The conventional approach is to use relaxation techniques or meditation, breath techniques or even massage and physical therapy, which may help reduce your tension as part of a stress action plan. By simplifying our life, reducing our level of busy-ness and introducing self-care and good sleeping and eating habits, we could go a long way to truly healing our way of being and start letting go of beliefs, ideals, perceptions and expectations that can cause internal stress. However, what if the true answer lay deeper than this and that it meant addressing all the ways we are living? For example, what if it meant being able “to observe and not absorb” that which goes on around us, to not take things so personally, to give people the freedom to make their own choices in life?

The only thing we truly have control over in life is our own inner state of being. Serge Benhayon presents that one of the ways we can have command over our inner state is via the breath.

It has been known for thousands of years that breathing has a powerful influence over our physiological and psychological well-being. Some people may find it difficult to understand the link between the way we breathe and its effects on stress, as we have been breathing since the first moment we were born and take around 20,000 breaths a day, so we must have been breathing correctly from a physiological perspective as we are still alive. Yet research has shown that the way we breathe can have a powerful effect on how stressed we feel. When we suffer stress, one of the changes brought about by the fight/flight response is to speed up the amount of breaths we take switching from slow, abdominal breathing to faster, shallower and stressful chest breathing. This is vital and healthy in the short term however, if we are constantly triggering the fight/flight response we can begin to habitually breathe with our upper chest even though the stress may be over. This style of breathing sends signals to the brain that we are under stress when we may not even be.

The Gentle Breath Meditation as taught by Serge Benhayon teaches us to focus on our breath and how we are breathing so as to build awareness of how we are reacting to life and how we are feeling. The Gentle Breath can be utilised as a tool that can assist the body to become more harmonious and bring us back to our natural calm, relaxed state of being so that life’s influences do not impact so greatly upon us. The Gentle Breath Meditation may be one of the simplest yet effective starting points in taking true control of your life instead of being at the mercy of the outside world and all the pressures that it presents.

It’s important to be aware of your stress level not just as it relates to your smile but the mind and body as well. Take time out of your day to connect to yourself, breathe gently and de-stress.

Becoming aware how detrimental stress is to our overall health and wellbeing as well as oral health is a key step to becoming empowered to make beneficial changes in our dental care and our way of living and responding to life’s challenges in general. When we begin to realise that we can change, we can heal, and we can choose differently – we can choose a gentle breath, and a gentle caring way to be with ourselves, and others. I invite you to see and feel for yourself how the body will lovingly respond to such choices.

225 thoughts on “Life, Stress and Dental Problems

  1. I am learning about the level of stress I have taken in my life through my teeth, but I am also learning to appreciate that I have some awesome foundations! Thank you my mouth for being a great communicator and my dentist for being able to bridge the conversation!

  2. It is interesting and shocking to realise that in today’s world with all its advances and technology and affluence that stress is still so prevalent and influential on our lives.

  3. I was thinking about this very topic as I was sitting in a dentist’s chair yesterday. I have had to visit my dentist a number of times this year because my fillings came off, not because of tooth decay, but because I grind my teeth. And really, it’s not something I can control, but that does not have to mean there’s nothing I can do. Stress does not have a on/off switch, it encompasses how I live my day in its entirety. More gentleness, more tenderness, more space, more surrender – obviously my body is asking for.

  4. We have to be honest with ourselves and see how we choose to invest in stress. Could the simplicity of life be way too much for us to comprehend let alone live? Life is simple – there is not one ounce of need for stress in our day yet the simplicity with which I know I can live can still feel ‘out there’ and yet as I let go of any struggle I can tap into simplicity in this very moment… the issues and dramas we create to have stress in our lives.

  5. It’s the way we deal with all the little things in our day that actually shapes our life – and I agree the gentle breath meditation is revolutionary when it comes to supporting us to approach life differently.

  6. It’s an amazing fact that we breathe approximately 20,000 times a day, this alone is something we could work on to change the quality of how we breathe to impact significantly not just on stress levels but quality of life and how connected to ourselves we feel.

  7. Yes it is but in order to be able to do this in a non judgemental way dentists and doctors need to be self-caring themselves and currently so many are not and are not supported to do this by the systems but there certainly needs to be a re-evaluation by all concerned as our current trajectory is towards ever greater levels of stress and ill-health under a bankrupt system.

  8. This blog not only clearly spells out the detrimental effects stress has on our oral health as well as the rest of our body but also empowers us to take responsibility for the amount of stress in our lives and gives us the tools to turn this around. Truly a gift and one that is well worth embracing – thank you Rachel.

    1. When we embrace the stress in our lives and see it for what it is we can change our ways/movements to support us. We are no longer run by those stressful, abusive movements but movements that support our evolution and well being.

    2. I’ll second that Helen. From my own experience, this has proved to be true. The more I take care of myself, and bring that attention to the smaller details such as being committed and thorough with my dental care the more I benefit all round, and in turn so does everyone else. Including the dental staff!

  9. Before I knew any different I too would never have associated stress with gum disease. But as you so clearly explain Rachel, there is no part of our physical body that is not affected by our mental/emotional health. Its no different to adding a toxic chemical to a flowing river in a sense, as the environment then has to adapt and change to cope with the unfamiliar stress that has been introduced.

  10. “Stress is a reaction people have when excessive pressure or demands are placed upon them, and arises when an individual believes they are unable to cope” – this puts responsibility right back to us. And I agree – there does not have to be any major crisis for us to feel stressed, it’s the little things in life and how we react to them. And we cannot possibly eliminate every single possible cause of stress in order to be able to live stress-free in this world. We have tried every way possible to numb and distract ourselves, but nothing ever truly worked either.

  11. Thankyou Rachel for such a comprehensive and informative account of how stress can have such an impact on every aspect of our body, including our dental health. There is much to consider.

  12. I used to believe that my dental health was separate to the rest of my body but this article clearly lays down how the whole body is affected by stress and that we do not have to be at the mercy of our daily situations. I have also been practising the Gentle Breath Meditation as suggested in this article and it does make a difference to how I deal with the day to day stuff and my energy levels at the end of the day.

  13. This is a fantastic exploration and expose on stress and effects on the mouth, teeth and gums as it considers our connection to our inner state of being as the one thing that we can control in life.

  14. Sometimes when we do not do something for a while and come back to it our experience of it is different because we are different. I had not eaten sugar for some time and then had a couple of cookies that had maple syrup in them. I lived in Canada for a short spell and used to love maple syrup on my pancakes, in pies, with ice cream, in coffee even so the taste for me was amazing and reconnected me to ‘happy’ former times but the sensation in my mouth and in my body after eating them was also very strong. It felt like my gums were sizzling, like the sherbert I used to have as a child, my brain had gone ping, like a light had been put on and my body internally felt like it was being revved up with a chaotic energy. I share this because the sensation in my mouth was very strong and lasted for some time. The next morning I could still feel it and it had also made my teeth feel on edge. the next day was the same. If having a couple of cookies can have such a profound effect then I can understand how we are destroying ourselves by consuming sugar, albeit a supposed healthy sugar, the refined version and its substitutes being added to so many products nowadays.

  15. Reacting to situations (as I did yesterday) indicates to me my reserves are low: instead of observing, I absorbed. Ouch! Not a good feeling in the body, but great to acknowledge how tired I am.

    1. Yes I still get caught in this way when I am tired but it is great to have the awareness to be able to turn it around rather than let it fester and cause problems in our lives and bodies.

  16. A timely article Rachel and one which supports me to understand why for the first time I have gingivitis. Without reading this, I would not have associated gum disease with stress levels. I can now see how certain additional responsibilities I’ve taken on are impacting on my body and as a consequence begin to make some adjustments and scale things down. Thank you.

  17. A wonderfully informative sharing Rachel! You bring much clarity to the Dental issues and questions we often ask.

  18. “Any idiot can face a crisis, it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” I love this quote from Anton Chekov as I experience this right now, experiencing stress in my job on a daily basis has become too much the last days, the messages of my body are very clear I have to come back to observe and not absorb but also honouring what I truly feel and express, not trying to be perfect.

    1. Well done! It is so easy to get sucked into thinking day-today stress is normal but it is not and every part of our body is communicating to us. Regular check ups at the dentist can help us understand our relationship with stress but we also need to give permission for dentists to communicate in this way.

  19. A brilliant article Rachel, with so many people experiencing stress and anxiety on a daily basis, we need to address this before it starts to impact on the body and create more issues further down the line. The Gentle Breath Meditation is a very simple and practical tool that can support anyone to reduce their stress and anxiety considerably, as you suggest in your article.

  20. Rachel thank you for the wisdom you share, I have found that stressful situations do change the way that I breathe, and having learnt the Gentle Breath Meditation I often use it at work, to bring me back to reconnecting to my body, and I find it a very helpful tool.

  21. Rachel thank you for a very informative read about stress, I am now far more aware of how our everyday stresses affect our body and in particular how it can affect our dental health too, there is much to be said to be aware of what situations make us feel stressful.

  22. It’s amazing and at the same time very easy to experience that when we choose to be gentle with our breath, our levels of stress are reduced dramatically. This doesn’t mean that the eventual complications of life disappear, but our perception and approach to them become more gentle and clear then.

  23. Love your proposition, “Think of some of the things that get under your skin on a regular basis – things like waiting in line, time pressures, lack of sleep, noise, your job, money, your kids, relationships, getting meals ready, being stuck in traffic, shopping and so on.” I realise stress in my body is simply my reaction to whatever the trigger is, I can either react or I can look at the belief or expectation around anyone of these events that gives the reaction any traction.

  24. In terms of oral health, as far as I was concerned, avoiding sugar and brushing teeth regularly was really just about it and I had never considered any link between stress and oral health but as you explain here the relationship is so obvious. This is such an enlightening article. Thank you, Rachel.

  25. Breathing gently definitely always helps me to feel more chilled out, but I’m so used to feeling stressed that often I’ll just try to distract myself from fully feeling it, hoping it will go away by itself. But all I’m really doing in that moment is burying it, saying I don’t want to feel it and take responsibility for it, and abandoning my body in the process.

    A far more effective way of dealing with the stress I’m feeling is to have a relationship with it. To go: okay, I feel anxious and stressed. Now I’m going to breathe deeply and allow myself to just feel, without needing or wanting to feel any differently. And as if by magic, suddenly I feel lighter and less stressed. Walking also does this – just focusing on my movements, keeping it very simple. Stress is a toxic poison. I wouldn’t choose to eat a toxic chemical for lunch, so why do I allow myself to absorb this toxin in a different way? It’s the victim mentality and the choosing not to be aware of how I got stressed in the first place – by putting too much pressure on myself – so that it feels like ‘it just happened to me’ instead of I looking at why I chose to put this pressure on myself and then react to it.

  26. Rachel, great informative article, thank you. I had not realised there was a link between stress and oral health, reading this it completely makes sense though that stress will affect our whole body and way of being.

  27. A very interesting article, that whilst reading sounds like pretty much most of the world are living with some form of stress. I never knew this ‘Also, stress can cause your body to flush out minerals like calcium from your body’ which I guess highlights the importance of taking minerals to support the body. Also I know that I did (and sometimes I still do!) grind my teeth at night and when I was younger always used to get tonnes of mouth ulcers so I would say this means my stress levels have been pretty high! But through reading more of your blog I then got reminded to feel my breath and how I can instantly change this in my life … thank you.

  28. Ironically, when I am stressed, my stress is usually triggered by an idea that I do not have enough time or space for anything, as I am too busy. Well, that is not entirely true, I have enough time for work and “necessities” but seem to put everything else in the “sorry, I am too busy category” The great thing about the gentle breath meditation is it only takes a few minutes, it’s quicker than checking your Facebook feed. Although, sometimes my stress is so high that even those few minutes seem undoable, so ANOTHER FANTASTIC TOOL I learned from Universal Medicine is to begin to focus on conscious movements, training the mind to stay with the body, this is a mediation in movement and it is also very effective.

    1. I can relate to what you are sharing Sarah, even going to the toilet can feel as taking to much time for myself during my work. I know it is crazy but it happens a lot amongst my collegeas too. And not going to the toilet for a pee gives stress on the body. The moment I decide to step out of this conciousness of clients first by feeling how I walk is a great tool and makes me go to the toilet too.

      1. I know exactly what you mean, I have started drinking heaps of water so that I have to go to the toilet several times a day now. This has actually been great for me, as it allows me to have time out to feel myself, away from everything else. There is never a good time to take a break in my industry but I am now learning that I can move in a way that I am resting and connected.

  29. I love that you have exposed the detrimental impact of stress on the body whilst highlighting that there is a way to take control of your life rather than be at he mercy of the outside world and all the pressures that life presents. Dealing with and addressing the end result is only a bandaid when true healing can come from empowering people to know they have control over their own wellbeing.

  30. It is undeniable that the stress and unrelenting intensity of this modern-day world is having a devastating ripple effect on the quality of our overall health and well-being. The question is what are we going to do about it…

  31. When we suffer with stress our body is put under stress too, as it attempts to deal with the overload of anxiousness and exhaustion our general health over time starts to deteriorate and breakdown, until we start to reconnect back to ourselves and start making more loving choices.

  32. Thank you Rachel, some great reminders here on how we create stress and the way to support ourselves. It’s interesting how the mind plays such a big part in how stressed we can feel, from our “beliefs, ideals, perceptions and expectations”. Examining and letting go of these can have a huge beneficial effect.

  33. What a beautiful insightful sharing Rachel, what I understand now is that everything is linked so how we live and how we breath have a huge impact on us. So it’s great to come back to the breath and feel how we are, and check and see if indeed we are breathing … it’s give us a time and space to just be, And yes our bodies love us for it.

  34. The understanding to not take things personally is helping me enormously to not react to situations and people that I would otherwise react to. I may react but the tension within my body is reduced and it doesn’t take as long to clear.

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