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More often than not, we go through the motions of our nighttime routine without giving them much thought. We might race through a skincare or oral care regimen, only to feel restless as we climb into bed. But what if we took a moment to slow down, and looked at our nighttime routines a little differently? Did you ever think that our nighttime rituals — the acts of self-care we complete each and every night — could actually be the perfect opportunity to unwind and prep for tomorrow?
That is where habit stacking comes in, or the practice of layering a new, healthy habit onto an existing “keystone” habit, such as brushing our teeth. This way, we can build a healthier lifestyle without drastically changing our routines. With the importance of oral health in our mental health, physical health, and overall quality of life, combining the act of brushing your teeth with a stress-relieving technique is the perfect way to feel calmer as our days come to a close. And considering 80 percent of people don’t brush their teeth like their dentists recommend, giving our oral routines, as well as our well-being, a boost can help us live healthier lives.
Check out these four strategies to achieve greater mindfulness in the two minutes it takes to brush up.
It is not always easy to live in the moment — especially when doing something as routine as brushing our teeth. However, Elissa Epel, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and the director of the UCSF Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center, tells Thrive Global that it can actually be a great opportunity to be more mindful as we try to ease stress at the end of the day. Epel says stress can impact our bodies’ ability to be in a balanced, restorative state, especially when we are attempting to rest or sleep.
To calm racing thoughts and combat stress at night, Epel recommends bringing our focus to something positive or meaningful that happened that day, or something we’re grateful for. “Enhancing our daily purpose and gratitude are both stress reducing,” Epel says. What’s more, a study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research shows that gratitude can enhance sleep quality and duration, making it an especially effective step to add to our nighttime routines. Use the two minutes you spend brushing your teeth as a habit-stacking opportunity: Contemplate your day and identify moments that made you feel purposeful and grateful. You’ll head to bed with a more positive attitude and start the next day on the right side of the bed.
Simply put, self-affirmation can decrease stress levels by helping us get in touch with what is important to us and ultimately raise our sense of self worth. According to research from Carnegie Mellon University, self-affirmation, or “the process of identifying and focusing on one’s most important values,” can help relieve stress when in high pressure performance or problem-solving situations. What’s more, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we care about and who we are at our cores — which Janine Dutcher, Ph.D., a postdoctoral psychology researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, tells Thrive can be stress-relieving in and of itself.
“Self-affirmation is all about identifying the things you do well, the values you have, and the role they play in your life. You can reflect on those things while brushing your teeth, which can help reduce stress and keep you grounded by recognizing things like ‘I’m actually a really great daughter’ or ‘It’s really important to me that I spent more time appreciating art,’” Dutcher says. Practice self-affirmation at night to boost your self-esteem and feel more intentional as you prepare for the next day. As you brush your teeth, think about three things that matter most to you, as well as three values you exemplified throughout your day.
Pay attention to the sensation
Have you ever truly paid attention to the sensations of brushing your teeth? According to Emily Lindsay, Ph.D., a research scientist in the University of Pittsburgh’s psychology department, bringing our awareness to this staple of our nighttime routine can promote mindfulness and reduce stress. Take the time to notice “the smell of the toothpaste, the way it might clear your sinuses, the physical sensations of the toothbrush on your gums, the sensations in your hands and arms as you automatically know how to perform these movements. Notice as thoughts inevitably arise as you do this routine task, acknowledge them, and gently bring your attention back to the sensations of brushing your teeth,” she tells Thrive. “Bringing your focus to present moment sensations like this while gently acknowledging distractions can give you a break from getting caught up in racing thoughts.”
Don’t forget to breathe
Something as simple as focusing on your breath can also help you decompress after a long, stressful day and ultimately help you sleep. Research in Frontiers in Psychiatry shows that slow breathing techniques can promote relaxation and help combat insomnia. With that, try bringing your attention to your breath during the two minutes it takes to brush your teeth. Feel as your lungs fill with air and watch as your stomach rises and falls. Your heart rate will become slower and more even, and your mind will feel clear as you prepare your body for sleep.