Today, a client brought up her panic attacks, which manifest physically as extreme tension through her upper chest, throat, and jaw. We started to do some work with her jaw, because the tension you carry in your jaw ripples down into your throat and upper chest, and a question came up. In response to asking her to gently open her mouth a little and hold it there, she asked, "Why is this so hard?!" As someone with a lot of body awareness and control over how she moves, this seemingly simple request was really confusing and challenging.
Opening her mouth just a little was so challenging because, although it seems to be very close to her neutral, it's a way that she never ever holds her jaw. It's a transition point between fully closed and fully open, not a place where her nervous system and muscles are used to staying. It's like being asked to take a step, and then stop somewhere in the midst of your step on one foot, pausing before you can put down the other foot. Because the way you hold your jaw is so deeply a part of you and your nervous system, being asked to change it shakes your nervous system up in the same way as being asked to balance unexpectedly.
So, if it's so disrupting and challenging, why do it? Why bother trying to hold your mouth in a different way than usual? Because variety is important for your nervous system. Too much can be unsettling and disturbing in a negative way and set off your sympathetic nervous system (in charge of fight or flight, including panic attacks) but a little bit can offer relief from your habits in a positive way that allows your parasympathetic nervous system (in charge of sleep, calm, and digestion) to help you out, and maybe knock that on-coming panic attack out of the way.