Anxiety, frustration or anger, excess energy, depression (or low mood), and several other things just plain drive many of us to it. What? Stress habits and self-medication.
Peter picks the tips of his fingers until they bleed. Joan drinks a bit too much alcohol to unwind. I clench and grind my teeth. Jack binge eats on occasion. Sonja drinks an excess amount of coffee each day. Gloria picks her scabs and pulls out hair from her arms. Elaine sometimes slaps her own face when she does something wrong. Do you do anything like these things?
As strange as they may seem, stress habits and self-medication become a peculiar means of comfort, coping, and maybe even pleasure. Some are obviously more serious issues than others, but I think a lot of people do something like the above for one of these stated reasons. In this post I want to emphasize that the topic is not about serious addiction, but lesser habits that still affect us negatively.
“Cindy, you’d better stop grinding and clenching your teeth, or you’ll seriously damage them some day! The wear is quite evident.” That is basically what my dentist told me on a few occasions. Even my psychiatrist said that I have to take better care of my teeth by stopping this stress habit. Both the dentist and psychiatrist suggest I buy a mouth guard. But I only grind and clench my teeth during the day. Who in the heck wants to wear a mouth guard during the day? Actually, why can’t someone (particularly my psychiatrist), help me get rid of the root cause of the problem so I DON’T grind and clench my teeth!
Stress habits and self-medication can be a bitch to stop. I can’t just tell myself “Cindy, stop grinding your teeth!” Yeh, as if it could be that easy! Telling a person to cut down on their drinking or sweets when they think it is the only pleasure in their life, is usually even harder. In the case of stress habits, perhaps a change in life could do the trick. In the case of self-medication, usually a lot more must be done. There could be a more serious underlying issue that needs discovering.
Proper support, planning, getting to the root of the problem, courage and action is necessary to stop stress habits and self-medication. Sometimes medications can help, but believe me, from my experience they don’t always do the full trick.
There is actually a lot of support out there for people who wish to stop destructive habits. These range from open 12-Step group meetings, various types of doctors, therapists, hospital or school sponsored programs, self-help books, weight programs, online support groups, etc. Having a serious sit down talk with your close family and friends can also be beneficial. In fact, I’ve found for many destructive habits that family and friend support can make the difference. If they are committed to help you, you can often strengthen your commitment. Their reminders, cooperation, willing ears, and sometimes ultimatums make a difference.
So back to my teeth grinding and clenching. No, there hasn’t been a perfectly effective medication to make me stop, but I do know that by using proper coping tools the habit eases. I talked to my therapist about coping tools. I also found some good tips online. When I actually USE them, I find them helpful to at least a degree. The challenge is for me to use them more and more frequently, and at the same time try to ease the root problem. I know that in the past when I’ve done so, I suddenly find that I haven’t indulged in the habit as much. Sometimes out of the blue I realize that the habit is gone. It can get better or stop.
Note: If you think that you or someone you care about has a full-blown addiction or serious mental health or life issue, or even if you feel you just have a stress habit that is especially hard to stop, please contact a doctor or therapist for the best care.