Chewing sometimes gets a bad rap. Some educators feel that chewing should not be allowed or at best, it’s discouraged. Kids and special needs kids in particular use sensory stimulation to help cope with stress and to self-regulate. A coping mechanism that is often very effective for these kids is chewing. The mental health benefits associated with chewing are numerous. Exposure to chronic stress induces various physical and mental effects that may ultimately lead to disease. Stress-related disease has become a global health problem. Mastication, a fancy word for chewing, is an effective behavior for coping with stress and ultimately stress-related mental health issues.
Chewing helps relieve stress and even increases blood-flow to the brain which, in turn, sparks other important effects. Nail-biting, teeth-clenching, and biting on objects are considered outlets for emotional tension or stress. Giving the child a better choice for chewing saves on damage done to pens, pencils, toys, and even fingers and hands. Chewing under stressful situations has shown to decrease anxiety-like behavior and has other physical benefits. Portions of the brain that react to stress are positively suppressed through chewing, resulting in a sense of calm and increased mental clarity. Chewing also relieves muscle tension and energy loss. An intervention study revealed that chewing reduces occupational stress both at and outside of work, reducing fatigue, anxiety, and depression and leading to a more positive mood. Chewing is also associated with perceptions of better performance.
Chronic stress creates a buildup of chemicals in the brain that, if left unchecked, can affect the brain’s ability to function properly. Studies show that stress, no matter its cause, alters brain circuitry in ways that can have long-term effects on mental health. Stress impacts emotions and behaviors which can trigger a person’s genetic predisposition to mental illness.
Often, during stressful situations people will chew on pencils, pen caps, or other readily available objects. More often than not, the behavior is involuntary and subconscious. After a particularly stressful day, studies have shown people tend to grind their teeth in their sleep as a way to relieve some of the pent up stress. Chewing provides muscle sense stimuli to the jaw that is very calming and organizing. It’s similar to how some people might bite their fingernails when they’re nervous, or pace back and forth, do deep breathing, tap their foot, etc. It also harkens back to how mouthing/chewing/sucking is a self-soothing technique when we’re babies. These are all mechanisms for how we cope with stress.
The connection between stress and mental health is well known. Chewing as a stress reliever provides a way to eliminate the effects of chronic stress on a person’s mental health and providing better chewing choices makes chewing safer and more sanitary.