An Unrealized Reaction

Recently, I developed some soreness in my upper jaw and was afraid that I might need some major dental work. I imagined the worst: a root canal, a cracked tooth, or an old filling that needed to be replaced. When I saw my dental hygienist, she explained that the problem was simply that I was grinding my teeth throughout the night. This occurrence had never been a problem for me before. She said, however, that she had witnessed more of these reactions in 2020 than at any other time in her career.

I hadn’t thought of myself as being anxious or stressed, but my body was keeping score better than my mind was. I am not having any of the normal symptoms of an anxiety diagnosis (e.g., restless sleep, confused thinking, inability to focus, desire to isolate, fatigue, or labile mood swings). Even though I don’t have an anxiety disorder, I can say that I have been concerned, or perhaps mildly worried or a little stressed. Okay, maybe at times a lot stressed, but nothing that required treatment!

The Stress We May Be Carrying

This scenario probably describes how many of you may be feeling, too. 2020 has been a stressful, anxiety-producing year. The pandemic, the Presidential election, the social unrest, the uncertainty surrounding the economy, the loss of normal ways of coping, the inability to be with friends, and the cancellation of vacations and family holidays have all contributed to a level of stress that amounts to much more than normal. Is there a way for us to better handle our stress without medication or therapy? If you are dealing with some of these normal stressors and not a diagnosable anxiety illness (e.g., Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), some breathing techniques may be able to help.

Let me give an example: take just a minute to unwind yourself. You might notice that you are sitting with legs or arms crossed with a frown on your forehead and tapping on your desk with your fingers. Start this exercise by uncrossing your legs and arms, releasing the frown on your forehead, and opening your hands. Sit straight in your chair, letting your lower back, the lumbar region, fit firmly against the back of the chair. Take a couple of deep breaths: slowing in and out.

Inhale, Exhale

Now, begin inhaling for 4 seconds. Hold it for just a bit. Then exhale for 8 seconds. The first time or two that you try this, you might find that you can’t exhale for 8 full seconds. That’s okay! Exhale for as long as you can, up to 8 seconds. Then do it again. Inhale—1-2-3-4. Hold. Now exhale—1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Now repeat: Inhale—1-2-3-4. Hold. Now exhale—1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.

Do this several times, and you will begin to feel more relaxed. You may notice that the tightness you hold in your body (maybe in your shoulders, in your forehead, or in your stomach) begins to ease. One caution is that you might feel a little lightheaded the first few times you try this exercise. Don’t worry! You will soon get the hang of it.

If you are having the anxiety symptoms that I described earlier, you might want to have these symptoms assessed. However, if you find yourself just feeling a little more uptight than usual, try the breathing exercise and see if it works for you. It works for me. In fact, I do it often.