After examining the tooth I had chipped for the third time in less than two years, the dentist asked if I might be grinding my teeth. I admit I was a bit offended. However, based on the hundreds of dollars and hours of dental work required to thrice fix the injured tooth, the other reasonable alternative is to be regularly snacking on rebar.
Grind my teeth? I’ve logged many years in recovery and trauma healing, and I am well acquainted with meditation, breath work and similar calming practices. Isn’t gnashing of teeth what the anxious/angry types do? (Ha!)
Reluctantly, I agreed to try sleeping with a mouth guard, which is as attractive as you might imagine. With the soft pushback of the protector, I discovered that I do not grind my teeth, thank you very much. I do, however, clench them, quite ferociously actually. In fact, I could probably power the neighborhood with the frequent firing of my mechanical jaws. A benefit of the guard is being awakened repeatedly, which contradicts my strong denial. With the denial dashed, I realize I repeatedly clench my teeth when I’m awake, too.
I’ve been thinking about the power of this unconscious habit. As long as I can remember, I have set my jaw in a hard line when faced with something unpleasant or difficult. It is my body’s signal to soldier on, to face whatever is ahead with gritty determination. The attitude was quite valued in my family, and I had no idea the stance might be a problem.
The trauma experts say the body knows. The body carries our pain and tries to bring it to our attention. The body is more powerful than the mind’s denial, and it alerts our spirit to God’s invitations.
When I became aware I was clenching my teeth, I thought of the scripture, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). It’s interesting that I have learned to quiet my mind and body except for my mouth. I have no idea how to tame my teeth.
Determination has long been my friend, or so I thought. It allowed me to thrive (outwardly, at least) through some very tough situations. Like most trauma-based coping mechanisms, though, this determined, strong-jaw response is no longer helpful and has, in fact, become detrimental.
I find it much easier to soldier on than to let go and trust God for the outcome. Help me, gentle God, to scatter only a dusting of determination across a lifestyle of surrender.
Marnie C. Ferree