As I pull into the driveway, my mind races with all of the things I need to do in the next 24 hours. It’s the dreaded finals week and there are simply too many things, I decide.
It’s not until several minutes later when I’m sitting upright on my bed with papers strewn everywhere and my laptop heating up when I notice it- I’m starting to get a headache. While I’m usually stubborn enough to try and “wait it out,” this time I instantly walk to the kitchen and reach for the Tylenol. There is no way I’m going to let a headache keep me from acing this exam tomorrow, I thought. But when I opened my jaw to take the pills, I was met with pain much worse than my newly discovered headache.
I soon realized that my teeth had been clenched shut so hard and for so long that I no longer realized it was happening and it was now causing me a headache. I tried an old trick that i had learned to see how bad the situation was, “curve your fingers and try to stack three knuckles vertically into your mouth. If you can’t do that, you’ve got a problem,” the Youtuber had said.
My face reddened with pain and embarrassment when my mom walked in right at that moment. It felt like I was trying to beat the Guinness world record for “Number of Fingers Forced Into Mouth” (the record is 30 fingers as of 2011, so close). The strain it was causing was painful and I couldn’t believe that I had led to my own demise by simply clenching my teeth all day.
I took a break from my studies and started to search the web for how to un-clench my jaw and get rid of all this soreness. I found one boring, long, but incredibly helpful video. Luckily, by the end of the video my jaw felt relaxed and I was no longer clenching my teeth.
It dawned on me long after finals week that TMJ pain (which is what the internet had informed me I was experiencing) is similar to despair one can feel after feeding on negative thoughts all day. Paul encourages us to focus on the positive: things that are good, true, etc., but how often do we really do that when we let our thoughts take the driver’s seat for a while?
I know I find myself repeating negative thoughts when I let my mind wander. These thoughts pile up during the day so that by the time I get home from work or class it’s almost impossible to climb out of the stress-filled pit I’ve dug for myself.
One technique I am using to combat these thoughts can be found in “The Power of Habit” and it is a pair of terms called “awareness training” and “competing response.” Awareness training involves just what you might assume, training yourself to be aware when you are doing an unwanted activity. So whenever I say something negative to myself, I mark a notch on a notecard. At the end of the day, I’ll be able to see how often it happens and I’ll have a better idea of what triggers it because I am paying closer attention.
Competing response is where I replace negative thinking with something else. For me, I am going to try to memorize as much scripture as I can. For now, I will meditate on what Paul says in Philippians 4:8.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
The second I start to think something negative, the thought will be replaced by these words and positive thoughts until eventually, positivity will be the norm.
But just like TMJ pain, realizing my jaw is clenched during the day only gets me so far. At the end of the day I have to do certain exercises that loosen my jaw so that I don’t clench harder when I’m sleeping or when I’m not paying attention. The same goes for negative thinking. Reading a few bible verses here and there is only good for the short term. I need to devote time to prayer and bible study that goes beyond just skimming the surface. Once I have done that, my relationship with God will help me make positivity and hope a lifestyle and negativity a healthy exception to the norm.