I wish I had looked after my teeth…

‘You can choose between having root canal on all your bottom teeth or retainers to be worn 24/7 for a year’. This enticing choice, put to me by my dentist in December, was the outcome of my Olympic gold medal winning skills in teeth clenching. Apparently as a result of stress. 

To say I was surprised is putting it mildly. I didn’t feel remotely stressed. Not only that but my job involves working with people on developing self-awareness and techniques to manage stress. So surely, I would be more alive to the physiological indicators of stress in myself. But clearly and slightly embarrassingly, I am not. 

What surprised me even more was the discovery that I am not alone. In fact, I am in excellent company. No fewer than five of the extremely successful women I work with have had mouthguards fitted in the past year. In addition, a notable number have had frozen shoulders and the recurrence of old immune issues such as eczema. But all of them tell me they are ‘fine’. Not stressed, in fact they are coping admirably well they think. This is excellent news as in many cases they are lending their deep-down calm to their organisation’s mental health campaigns. 

So, what on earth is going on? It seemed to me, based on my admittedly tiny research cohort, that there is too much of a coincidence here to be ignored. I googled it and sure enough there are a plethora of articles published in the last year on pandemic-related stress resulting in a bumper year for the makers of mouthguards. However, the focus seems to be on the pandemic, and whilst I am sure there is a significant correlation, I am more concerned that the pandemic has just thrown light on an issue that existed long before we all became armchair epidemiologists. 

There has never been such a focus on the importance of mental health. Organisations are falling over themselves to demonstrate their commitment to their employee’s well-being. Their leaders are the ones doing the flag waving. Yet they are also the people munching through their molars whilst telling themselves that they are absolutely fine. 

So what explains the disconnect that seems to exist in the heads of extremely intelligent, high performing professionals, between their body’s unsubtle cries for help and their recognition that action needs to be taken swiftly to re-establish mental and physical health? 

I have some theories, but I don’t have the answer. So I am going to try and work it out. If only so that I can say the word stress without lisping.  

In the meantime, I would like to suggest that those of us (including me) who are somewhat casual in assessing our genuine levels of ‘fine-ness’ pay attention to the signs that our bodies might be trying to tell our minds that they need a break. For example, is your jaw sore? Do your shoulders feel like concrete? Do you have more headaches than usual? Is your sleep disturbed? If so, perhaps rather than finding an explanation rooted in denial, it might be a good idea to take steps to dial down the levels of stress that you have become so adept at concealing. Awareness is step one.