Burnout, TMJ, and How I Learned To Listen to My Body

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  March 15, 2018

During finals last semester my ears starting buzzing, a sensation which I steadfastly ignored. Soon the aching began, and only got worse, until I soon felt like someone was twisting a knife deep into my right ear canal. The pain moved to my temples and the back of my skull. I continued to ignore the pain, buried as I was in a mountain of research papers, finals, and newspaper deadlines. I figured at worst I had an ear infection caused by my general lack of healthy sleep habits. I didn’t have time to go to the doctor, or the Beren PA, when there were tests looming ahead.

Finally, a few days into vacation, because the ear pain had not subsided, I went to an urgent care center near my house. The doctor spent roughly ten seconds looking at each ear before announcing that my left ear had an infection, while my right ear looked fine. This didn’t make sense to me, as the right ear hurt exponentially more, but I just wanted my diagnosis so I could move on with my life. I had newspaper articles to write, books to read for my job as a research assistant, and–by that point–a wedding to plan; I just didn’t have time for this. So I filled my prescription and ignored the pain in my ears.

I waited until the prescription was done–two whole weeks–before I was forced to acknowledge that there was something else going on with my body. My ears and head continued to ache, but still I resisted further attempts to solve my problem. I was frustrated; I already spent time at one doctor’s office and I just didn’t have time to go to another. After much hand wringing my mother and fiance finally convinced me that I needed to see an ENT (ear, nose, and throat doctor). I made an appointment, and on a Tuesday–over a month after the pain had begun–I ran from Stern to the Upper West Side to make it in time for my appointment.

The doctor looked in my ears–for longer this time–and said there was no infection. She asked me what I do, I replied college. She asked what I do in college, I described briefly. She saw my engagement ring and asked if I was planning a wedding, I said yes. She asked me if I was stressed. Obviously, I said while holding back an eye roll, who isn’t stressed. We continued talking for a while and finally she gave me a diagnosis–TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint Disorders) caused by stress. Or more, specifically, caused by my body’s reaction to stress–clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth, which causes pressure buildup in the jaw, leading to ear aches, head aches, and more.

I left the doctor’s office outraged, texting my fiance that the doctor was a quack. Sure, I was stressed, but that could not possibly cause me to have pain in the back of my skull and deep into my ears. I had come wanting a prescription drug that would just make my pain go away without any more time or effort, but now I was prescribed a softer food diet, jaw exercises, and bite plate so that I wouldn’t grind my teeth in my sleep. I was furious that I had wasted so much of my time.

Only at the behest of others did I actually make an appointment with a dentist and TMJ specialist who could make me a bite plate. When he asked me what felt like 200 questions about my teeth grinding habits I again restrained the urge to roll my eyes and answered without much thought. After he took a mold of my teeth I ran back to Stern to make my next class.

It wasn’t until after a few days of using the bite plate, that I admitted how stubbornly I had ignored my body’s cries for help. Suddenly my ears weren’t aching every morning. I became aware of the way I constantly went to sleep with a clenched jaw. I even became aware of my clenching during the day–my ears would start to hurt while I was writing, researching, or looking at sample arrangements from the florist, and I would suddenly realize that I had been clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth out of stress.

Looking back, it is clear to me that I was completely out of touch with myself. I was too stubborn to admit just how stressed and overwhelmed I was, and I couldn’t acknowledge that my body was trying to tell me something.

I had always viewed my body as nothing more than a vehicle. It was my brain that told me things, enlightened me, and helped me understand things about myself. My body just took me where my brain told me I needed to go–to classes, meetings, the library, the dressmaker, and did the things my brain told it to do–work, study, write, eat, and (sometimes) sleep. My body didn’t tell me things about myself.

However, my experience with TMJ has completely changed the way I view my body. After over two and half years of schooling, pushing myself to be my very best at everything and taking on far more than I could manage semester after semester, my body was telling my that I had finally burnt out. But my brain was too stubborn and prideful to admit that I was spent. It came up with excuses for why I was moodier, why I was so much quicker to snap at people, why I was procrastinating with my schoolwork. The pain in my ears was my body’s desperate plea to admit that I had a problem and that I needed to give myself a break.

And I did. I admitted that I was doing too much and I cut back as much as I could. I told my boss I needed more time to the do the work he had assigned me and I postponed writing my honors thesis until the summer. I studied a little less, and tried to give myself a few more healthy breaks. Dealing with burnout is obviously a continuous challenge, but I can say it is a million times easier if you actually admit that you have it.

It is easy to ignore our bodies while we find ourselves in college–an institution that largely focuses on the development of our brains. But it is possible for our bodies to tell us things our brains can’t, or won’t, see. And I for one, plan to listen better next time.