I’m a serious gum addict. I’m talking a pack-a-day, one-piece-after-another, sometimes-my-jaw-even-hurts sort of a habit. I’ve been told that it’s weird as far as habits go, and I have to admit, it probably is. But I justify it by telling myself that as far as addictions  go, gum is a whole lot less damaging than cigarettes or fast food, right? Then, the other day, a friend pointed out that it might not be just an affinity for Orbit Sweet Mint, but an oral fixation. Was it a keen observation or just college psychology rearing its ugly head?
Some of us just always have to have something in our mouths—whether it’s gum, a toothpick, a straw, a cigarette, whatever—to keep our mouths occupied. I have one friend who has to—HAS to—have something to snack on while watching TV.
“It’s not even about being hungry,” says Dayna Sakowitz. “I just feel more comfortable watching my shows if I’m nibbling on something. It’s almost like an outlet for nervous energy.”
Gum, popcorn, or whatever your poison, why do so many of us need to keep our jaws moving? Is it always an oral fixation? And if it is, should that be something to worry about?
Freud Says …
Of course, I had to look to Mr. Freud, who coined the term “oral fixation” in the first place, to find some answers. According to him, those of us with an oral fixation always need some kind of mouth stimulation—whether it’s chewing, sucking, drinking, or even talking. Of course, in Freudian fashion, he theorized that we develop such a fixation because of some traumatizing childhood experience, and he believed oral fixations were connected to breastfeeding.
Freud theorized that the way we’re breastfed (or not breastfed) as babies profoundly impacts how we see the world as an adult. The oral stage, the first of his famed stages of psychosexual development, lasts about a year and a half. During this time, we’re preoccupied with nursing, sucking, and accepting things into our mouths—being nurtured by our mother or other caretaker. During this stage, our “oral character” is either overindulged, satisfied, or frustrated. The overindulged child’s nursing urges are always (and excessively) met, leaving them with some particularly unenjoyable personality traits: helplessness, a sense of entitlement, and dependence on others. Orally frustrated babies, according to Freud, are either not nursed at all, or cut short frequently during feeding sessions. They grow up pessimistic, envious, suspicious, and—you guessed it—often exhibiting oral fixations.
Beyond Mr. Freud
Sure, it’s always enlightening to brush up on my Freudian psychology, but is there any other non-Freudian oral-fixation evidence? Turns out, the idea of an all-important oral stage isn’t necessarily in conflict with other studies. Body-part sucking in some animals (either on themselves or another animal) has been linked to motherly deprivation and premature weaning  in monkeys and in humans. Another breastfeeding expert, Dr. Jack Newman, has studied and published the effects of breastfeeding on little ones. When not deprived, Newman says children end up more independent and less prone to problems associated with deprivation, like oral fixations. Some tribal societies in the Southwest Pacific and Africa, in which the stomach is seen as the root of emotions, understand this stage to be crucial to development, too (according to Hilary Jacobson’s Mother Food for Breastfeeding Mothers).
Does This Mean I Wasn’t Nurtured as a Child?
Okay, okay, so the evidence that links a deprived oral stage to oral fixation is compelling. But other than leaving me with some rather awkward questions to bring up with my mother, could there be other ways to figure out what’s going on?
Deprivation isn’t the only explanation. Freud’s theories are just that—theories. Without individualized psychological examinations, there’s no way of knowing why the need for oral stimulation exists in someone; there are usually myriad reasons.
“I picked up my gum-chewing habit from a friend as a weight-loss trick,” says Lindsay Marquez. “It helped me cut back on snacking, and I still chew it throughout every single day.”
Oral fixation, like most theories, is a generalized idea, meaning it may hold true for some, but that doesn’t mean it explains the reality for everyone. Maybe I just like the taste of gum.
When to Break the Fixation
Childhood deprivation or not, when should we be worried about what seems to be an oral fixation? That depends on our fixation.
Freud said an oral fixation makes us “hunger” for things to put in our mouth. Thumb-sucking, nail-biting  four-year-olds grow out of their oral fixations. But chain-smoking forty-year-olds need to make a little more effort.
It comes down to how serious your choice of oral stimulation is. Although a recent article in Wired points out that excessive gum-chewing can have laxative effects, the sugar-free stuff is generally pretty harmless. Moving upward on the ladder of stimuli, things like biting nails, licking lips, or chewing pencils also usually don’t cause any serious problems—unless they become excessive. The need to quit these is a personal decision based on frequency and the degree of their impact on a happy, healthy lifestyle.
Then there are the inarguably harmful activities, like smoking, eating too much, or purposefully inflicting pain. If someone is unable to stop these harmful activities, he should seek individual counseling, so he can come up with a plan and specific steps for overcoming the habit, says The Habit Change Workbook. Of course, the longer a habit exists, the harder it is to break. Behavior modification techniques, individual counseling, and (in extreme cases) medication can help.
Whatever the reason and whatever the habit , we all know that it crosses the line when it gets out of control and becomes harmful to our health. Full disclosure: I’ve probably gone through about a pack of gum while writing this (despite the somewhat disturbing gum overdose article I ran across), but I still feel all right with my silly habit. And, hey, now I have Freud to thank for giving me a psychological spout off when anyone questions me about it.