“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, 1896-1940. The Great Gatsby. New York :C. Scribner’s sons, 1925.
Our need for escape has been around ever since our ancestors first scrawled images on a cave wall to depict a recent hunt. Primitive as they were, they told a story, and that allowed our minds to leave our current reality and briefly live another one.
Escape has taken on a myriad of forms over the millennia, and technology has contributed to its volume, availability, and format. One genre that actually owes its existence to current technology, specifically the advent of the computer, is video games.
Video games have grown to be so popular that they sometimes lead to addiction, referred to as “gaming disorder” in the WHO medical reference book, the International Classification of Diseases. It’s easy to see why they’re so alluring, offering the player an interactive experience and a challenging gameplay. But video games also offer something you won’t find anywhere else: a reset button.
Did your player get killed? Hit the reset button. Stuck in an area and can’t find the way out? Hit the reset button. Want to try to get more points on the last level? Hit the reset button. How glorious it would be to have a reset button for any situation, to relive a moment in time where you can make different decisions and get a better outcome.
If only reality had that option. I think most of us would have reset 2020 back to January 1st and had another go at it. And yet we steam forward like a ship into the night, where an uncertain future has us wary of icebergs.
All of this uncertainty has served as a great source of anxiety for many people, and compounding the problem is that our usual sources of escape have been taken away. Movie theaters? All closed. Take a vacation? No airplane flights. Go out to eat at your favorite restaurant? Takeout only. Go get some exercise? Gyms are shut down. Unfortunately, many have turned to alcohol or drugs to provide the escape they so desperately seek, while doing nothing for stress relief.
Stress shows up in many forms. From a dental perspective, the most common are headaches, sore jaw muscles, pain in the jaw joint, worn and broken teeth, and joint noises like popping and clicking. This is a result of the clenching and grinding of the teeth, called bruxism, an unconscious behavior that usually occurs while sleeping.
The signs of bruxism are fairly obvious for a dentist to spot, and when I notice them I like to have a conversation with the patient. Some are aware they are bruxing, but about half have no idea, and some even flat out deny it, despite ample evidence to the contrary. For those of you suffering from higher stress levels, here are some things to look for in the morning:
- Sore jaw muscles, or pain with finger pressure on the jaw muscles
- Inability to open wide
- Individual teeth that elicit pain with biting pressure
- Pain with finger pressure on the jaw joint
If you notice any of these, the first step is to call your dentist to set up an appointment for an evaluation. In the meantime, here are some things you can do at home:
- Moist heat – use a washcloth with very warm water and apply to the jaw muscles
- Active stretching – move your jaw open and closed, left and right without using your hand for additional pressure
- Avoid tough, chewy foods and caffeine
- Practice the relaxed position – with your teeth slightly apart and your tongue touching the roof of your mouth
Your dentist can offer some solutions to help with the symptoms and even reduce the bruxism itself. Common is a hard plastic appliance called a nightguard that fits over the teeth and keeps the jaws slightly separated. They take some getting used to, but most people achieve relief with regular use.
Unfortunately no one can make this COVID-19 situation go away, and reducing stress levels is always easier said than done. The best I can offer is a piece of advice from the Navy SEALs when dealing with high-stress situations:
“You can’t calm the storm so don’t try. Just calm yourself and the storm will pass.”
Here’s to a better 2021!
Postscript – Interestingly, The Great Gatsby was set in the 1920’s, also known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’ due to rising personal wealth, growth of the automobile, development of radio and film, birth of the aviation industry, and widespread optimism. These golden years came to a screeching halt with the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. The 2020’s started with a pandemic, stock market crash, double-digit unemployment, and an explosion of civil unrest. Only time will tell if the decade can come ‘roaring’ back with the prosperity of the past.