I have been working with people who suffer from temporomandibular joint dysfunction for a few years now and have noticed that an increase in oral habits such as biting nails, clenching, grinding, lip biting, biting hair (I could go on) can really exacerbate symptoms. As a result I ask people to watch out for their oral habits daily as it can be crucial for their rehabilitation. Over the years I have realised that when I ask people to try and stop their oral habits (which is easier said then done and perhaps even a little unrealistic) what I am really asking them to do is to be more present in their day to day lives.
What do I mean by “being present”?
I guess another word you could use is mindfulness. So how does one get better at being more mindful? I have found with my own health journey of trying to decrease old habits and trying to start new ones, meditation has really helped.
In contrary to what people might think, meditation doesn’t involve trying to stop your train of thoughts, rather, it involves watching the traffic of our mind, emotions and sensations, through this we can improve our ability to notice these gripping distractions within us – the trick is to notice these not just while we are meditating but also in our everyday life – for example – while we work, cook, exercise, parent, basically while we do life. By practising mediation we are able to increase our self awareness which is exactly what you need when you are trying to change a habit.
Habits are behaviours that are performed so frequently that they then become automatic. Often they are so automatic, they are deeply engrained and we don’t even know that we do them. This is why practicing mindfulness helps because when we are mindful we attend to what we are doing, what is happening and how we are feeling. When this happens we can actually catch ourselves doing things we never even knew we did. Practicing this self awareness helps most peoples see their habits and change, especially if it is the habit we are trying to decrease. If we don’t stop, we can pay attention to how we feel and possibly any triggers that are connected to our habits.
Working in the physiotherapy/manual therapy world I find meditation is a useful adjunct to the healing process as most of the time we are trying to decrease habits be it, favouring one leg, walking with an abnormal gait pattern, clenching etc. What mediation and mindfulness does is give more freedom from our conditioned responses, mental and physical. It is useful, as the process of meditation involves taking the time to pay attention to our bodies which is key, you can start asking “how I am standing while I’m waiting in this line at the supermarket?”. “What does my body do when I’m under the pump at work?”, “What is my go to sitting position?”.
I will admit it can be a long process changing a habit, because when you think about it the way to make a new habit is the same way you made the habit you are trying to get rid of! Repetition, repetition AND more repetition. Yep, you just have to keep at it. Your nervous system needs multiple times of doing the one thing before the pathway is strong, clear and direct. It is kind of like walking through the long grass and making a path, the first time you walk through the long grass you might only very slightly bend the grass, the second time you walk through it the grass gets a little more bent but you can only just make out the path you walked last time but if you repeat it enough the grass would have laid down and bent enough that it is a clear open space and it will be much quicker to walk through. Your nervous system works the same way.
I know that sometimes it seems like such hard work being present in your day to day movements but don’t worry this discipline will inevitably give you more freedom from your conditioned responses. So if you’ve been trying to stop a bodily habit in your life that isn’t serving you trying asking yourself these questions in your day to day; “how am I standing right now?”, “What am I doing with my mouth?”, “I feel really busy and overwhelmed right now, how am I breathing?”, “What does my normal walking pattern look like?”. Give it a go and feel free to tell me what happens.