I’ve been clenching my jaw since early March. The inclination to forcefully fuse my teeth together into a vice grip in times of elevated stress or anxiety is not exactly a new behavior for me (just ask my dentist). But 2020’s extreme, well, everything, has driven that tendency into overdrive. And with every doom scroll through Twitter I clench that much more. Apparently—and, perhaps unsurprisingly—I’m not alone.

“Virtually everyone I know, from clients to family and friends, is experiencing escalated jaw clenching this year,” Sandra Chiu, LAc, my longtime acupuncturist and the owner of Brooklyn’s Lanshin Clinic confirms of the common response to profound and/or prolonged stress and anxiety. Aesthetic dentist Michael Apa, D.D.S also reports a significant uptick in jaw tension among his clients. “This level of stress, categorically, is something we’ve never seen before,” says Apa, noting that the most obvious place for the negative results of sustained jaw clenching to manifest themselves is, of course, your teeth. Apa explains that everything from swollen gums to more complex problems like tooth loss can be a direct result of clenching, which, he points out, is different from grinding. “People who clench squeeze their jaw together and put a lot of pressure on their teeth while grinding is more of a side-to-side motion where you typically have things like chips and wear,” he says. “They are both triggered by the same thing: people just take stress out differently on their teeth.” But clenching can have a ripple effect that extends beyond the teeth you’re clamping down.

“Visually, jaw clenching can lead to an enlarged masseter, the prominent chewing muscle that runs from the cheekbone down to the jawline,” says New York dermatologist Robert Anolik, M.D. “As it gets stronger the base of the muscle near the back of the jawline enlarges and can make the jaw appear squared.” Skin can suffer too, reveals L.A.-based facialist Joomee Song. “Having tense, stiff muscles in your face causes unhealthy blood flow and poor lymph circulation which means our tissues do not receive enough nutrients and oxygen,” says Song. “That can cause breakouts, redness, dull complexion, puffiness, and drooping on the cheeks due to the weight of water retention,” which would explain why I continue to get the same constellation of zits along my cheeks and jawline—and also, interestingly, why my lower back and hips often hurt. “When we are stressed our body stays in defense mode and clenching our teeth leads to sore muscles not only in the face, but the entire body,” adds Song. Much like the headlines—which show no signs of becoming any less dire anytime soon—none of this is great news. But there is some hope, at least for our collectively clenched jaws. (For sociopolitical salvation, please click here).

Get Hands On

The best, and most immediate thing you can do to relieve facial discomfort may be gentle massage. “Massaging relieves the tension in our tissue and will create healthier blood flow and better lymphatic circulation,” says Song, who recently introduced a DIY facial massage series on her social media accounts.

Book an Acupuncture Session

Chiu takes a wide-angle approach to treating jaw clenching: first, she considers what triggered her patient’s nervous system and applies acupuncture to regulate the organ systems affected by the disruption. Then she works on opening the neck and shoulders with needling and, if necessary, needles directly into the tightest areas of the jaw. “I find that treating only the jaw itself can be short lived and less effective than treating the whole picture,” she adds. Gua Sha is also a constant in all her jaw tension acupuncture sessions, though she suggests treading lightly if you’re doing your own version. “Anyone using the technique at home should refrain from the stronger, more clinical strokes that can pull out red, rash-like markings, which can be risky,” she explains.

Brace Yourself

At Apa’s office, anyone with jaw clenching is prescribed a night guard. “We typically like to use a hard night guard that patients can’t squeeze into because it de-triggers the muscle and decreases the tension in the joint,” he adds; if that’s not effective, patients are sent to a Temporomandibular (TMD) specialist for trigger point anesthetic injections.

Visit Your Derm

Anolik has had success in his office with neuromodulators like Botox, often administered every six months. “It relaxes the base of the muscle near the jawline to help reduce its size,” he explains. “The change in the muscle strength is imperceptible to a patient in terms of chewing, but the clenching is reduced and the square quality diminishes substantially,” Anolik reports. Unlike Botox for your lines and wrinkles, which shows its effects in days, Botox for jaw clenching relief usually comes in a few weeks. “It’s not as much of an instant gratification but it’s relatively easy and most patients find it more comfortable because the central face, like the lip or nose, is more sensitive than the lateral face,” he adds.

Take Good Care

If you, like me, are tired to the point of eye-rolling at the near-constant mention of the benefits of hydration, sleep, and meditation, get ready: according to the experts, all of these things have a significant impact on curbing jaw tension, too. Ideally we should be clocking eight hours of sleep a night, and not just chugging water for our hydration. Chiu advises increasing your intake through hydrating foods like cucumber, melon, broth, and other fresh fruits and vegetables, and going easy on processed, high starch and high sugar foods. She also underscores the importance of daily movement, simple breathing exercises to boost circulation and calm the nervous system—and monitoring your news appetite, which is key to maintaining mental health, minimizing your body’s cortisol cascades, and supporting a strong immune system. “Media should be consumed like a restricted calorie diet,”advises Chiu. “Take what you need, and leave the rest.”

Source: vogue.com