Anxiety can cause a wide range of symptoms, including muscular tension. Anecdotal reports suggest that jaw tension, specifically, is a symptom of anxiety disorders. Jaw tension can lead to clenched teeth, pain, and bruxism.

Although there has not been extensive research on how to relieve or prevent jaw tension, a wealth of scientific research is available on the prevention and treatment of anxiety disorders.

This article explores the link between jaw tension and anxiety. It also discusses the symptoms of these conditions and their management and prevention.

A female looking anxious in a mirror with a hand on her jaw.Share on Pinterest
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Anxiety disorders range from specific phobias to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Healthcare professionals define anxiety as a “future-oriented mood state” associated with preparation for anticipated threats.

Someone who has an anxiety disorder will experience this mood under inappropriate circumstances. This might involve overestimating the likelihood or severity of a perceived threat, which can lead to unhelpful thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.

Anxiety can produce a range of symptoms. There is some scientific evidence that jaw tension, which arises when a person’s jaw muscles contract excessively, could be a symptom.

For instance, a 2020 study investigated the relationship between anxiety and jaw tension in 113 dentistry students. The researchers measured the students’ masseter muscles, the facial muscles responsible for chewing, and compared those measurements against self-reported anxiety levels. The authors conclude that there is a clear association between higher self-reported anxiety levels and increased tension in the masseter muscles.

A 2019 study also identifies state and trait anxiety, stress, and alexithymia — the term for difficulty expressing and identifying emotions — as important psychosocial factors in predicting bruxism. Bruxism is when a person clenches or grinds their teeth when not chewing. It usually occurs during sleep, but some people may clench their teeth or tighten the muscles in their jaw when awake.

A 2020 review of research found that there is a significant association between bruxism and people experiencing stress.

Learn more about bruxism.

Anxiety can present differently for different people. However, some symptoms, including those resulting from jaw tension, are more common than others.

Jaw tension symptoms

A 2021 study investigated disorders of the mouth and jaw, documenting the symptoms of 537 people. Some of these symptoms are possible results of increased jaw tension. They include:

  • pain in the jaw or teeth
  • grinding the teeth when asleep or awake
  • clenching the teeth
  • holding the jaw forward or to the side
  • biting objects for extended periods

If someone notices themselves doing any of the above, they could have jaw tension.

Anxiety symptoms

Aside from jaw tension and tension in other parts of the body, anxiety disorders have various cognitive and physical symptoms. A 2022 review lists these as follows:

Anxiety can also manifest in behavioral symptoms. These might include avoidance behaviors, which arise when a person finds ways to avoid anxiety triggers. They could also include restlessness, hyperventilation, and the seeking of reassurance.

There is limited research into the benefits of muscle exercises to relieve jaw tension. However, there is anecdotal evidence that certain facial stretches could help.

These include performing slow, controlled mouth movements, such as opening and closing the jaw or moving it from side to side. Some people might also use their hands, massaging the tense parts of their jaw.

The following jaw stretches may help relieve a tight jaw:

Relaxed jaw stretch

  1. Rest the tip of the tongue behind the upper front teeth.
  2. Lower the bottom jaw so that the lower teeth come away from the upper teeth.
  3. Remember to keep the jaw muscle relaxed.

Goldfish exercise

  1. Press the tongue against the roof of the mouth.
  2. Place one index finger on the chin and the other on the temporomandibular (TMJ), the joint that connects the lower jaw to the skull.
  3. Lower the bottom jaw as far as possible.
  4. Close the mouth and repeat.

Resistance mouth opening

  1. Hold the tip of the chin in the right hand with the thumb resting under the chin and the index finger wrapped around the front.
  2. Softly push the right hand against the jaw.
  3. Slowly start to open the jaw while continuing to push against the chin.
  4. Hold the position for a few seconds, then slowly close the mouth.

As jaw tension can arise for many different reasons, there is no one way of treating or preventing it.

If jaw tension arises due to anxiety, healthcare professionals may recommend taking steps to deal with anxiety as the first line of treatment.

Additionally, it may be possible for people to relieve anxiety or jaw tension in the following ways.

Relieving anxiety

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ways to relieve and treat anxiety include:

  • Exercise: There is evidence that regular exercise can help people manage anxiety symptoms. This is especially so with high intensity exercise, although low intensity workouts can also help.
  • Stopping or cutting down recreational substance misuse: People should limit or avoid smoking, caffeine, alcohol, and recreational drugs.
  • Psychotherapy: Several different psychotherapy and counseling options can be effective in treating anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
  • Meditation and other relaxation techniques: A person may also find relaxation and meditation techniques helpful in relieving anxiety. Examples include yoga and mindfulness.
  • Medication: Medication can help relieve symptoms and support the treatment of anxiety. Doctors may prescribe antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), anti-anxiety medication such as benzodiazepine, and beta-blockers.
  • Joining a support group: Some people may find it helpful to join a support group, where they can share experiences and build a network with other people with anxiety.

Learn more about treatments for anxiety.

Relieving jaw tension

There is not much medical research into treatments for relieving jaw tension.

A person can try the facial exercises mentioned above to relieve tension and reduce pain. Additionally, the following methods may help a person stop grinding their teeth:

  • Behavioral changes: People can learn how to hold their tongue, teeth, and lips properly to release tension in the jaw. This typically involves resting the tongue upward to relieve discomfort on the jaw while keeping the teeth apart and the lips closed.
  • Mouthguard: A person can get a mouthguard to wear during the day or night to protect the teeth and minimize the effects of teeth grinding.
  • Biofeedback therapy: Biofeedback is a type of therapy that involves an electrical instrument measuring the extent of the muscle activity in the mouth and jaw. It can make someone aware of involuntary bodily functions and help them take steps to control that behavior.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of anxiety, jaw tension, or both may wish to speak with a doctor.

The doctor can help determine the underlying cause and advise the person accordingly.

Anxiety is a condition that manifests in highly varied ways. Scientific evidence indicates that anxiety can lead to muscular tension, including within the jaw muscles. This jaw tension can be uncomfortable or even painful.

The treatments for jaw tension and anxiety include talking therapies, medication, and exercise, as well as specific stretches to try to relieve pain and tightness in the jaw.