In life we all experience stress in some way, shape or form and as individuals we all deal with it in a variety of ways. Some people sleep until the problem “goes away”, others face it head on and some resort to chewing to help them manage their stress. This may seem like an odd way to self soothe and relieve tension or stress but for some it is the only way, and it is not always a choice.
When adults or older children chew it usually has a root cause - they could be chewing to self-soothe, relieve anxiety, they could be trying to regulate their sensory system or trying to enhance their focus and attention.
Chewing is often a NEED not just something the individual wants to do. Their brain and body is sending them a message telling them to chew, to help them in some way; either to self-soothe, relax, or help with sensory overload and focus.
The best way to help a chewer is to provide them with appropriate items to chew on, opposed to telling them flat out to stop. Think of a time when you had an itch, it does not usually go away on its own, or until you scratch. Now, what if someone told you, you couldn’t scratch it? Would you be able to focus on the task at hand? Could you stop thinking about that irritating itch? Probably not! You would be focused or bothered by it until you were able to scratch it and relieve it. That is exactly how someone with the urge/need to chew feels. They will not have relief until they can chew on something.
The reasoning behind chewing is that chewing provides proprioceptive input to the jaw that has a calming and organizing effect on the chewer. (Proprioceptive sense is our 6th sense that represents movement)
For some chewing can be a phase that they grow out of,but for others it may be a coping mechanism they need for the rest of their life.
Chewing is a go to self soothing activity because :
- It is self soothing - think about babies, they often chew when teething to relief the pain and pressure they are feeling
- There is easy access to objects to fulfill their need - although the objects they choose to chew on may not always be appropriate (for example my son chewed on stones and pieces of a wicker chair in kindergarten) but chewable objects are all around us.
- Instant relief/gratification- chewing provides a cause and effect response. Ex: Chew the object - receive a sense of relief/sensory relief
Another reason why chewing can last beyond infancy and young childhood is because some people are hyposensitive - which means they have very little to no sensation in their mouth. Therefore they end up seeking it in different ways to receive the feedback their body requires.
Some ways they choose to do so are:
- Chewing/eating crunching foods
- Grinding their teeth
- Chewing on chewelry, chews, gum and other objects
Chewing helps increase focus and concentration as well as block out the busy world around us as it is a repetitive motion.
If you find yourself with a chewer on your hands like I did, the best advice I can give is to Not tell them to just stop chewing - instead redirect them to safe chewable items as it can be very beneficial.
If you don’t know what kind of chewer you are working with, or what would be best for them to chew on we urge you to reach out to a professional, such as an Occupational Therapist. Alternatively you can reach out to our team and we can discuss your needs and do our best to point you in the right direction. Often picking the right chew is a trial and error process as not all chewers need the same feedback and they can not all get what they need from the same texture, material or density of an object. It is a very personal need and is based on a case by case basis.