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A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
How to Stop Yawning
Tuesday, January 24, 2023 | Hannah Bullock


Image search result for: How to stop yawning via google

Image search result for: How to stop yawning via Google 


I began to adopt the practice of concealing my chronic pain1 almost immediately after it began over 13 years ago. I have set rules for myself: not to vocalize my pain, not to let people see it on my face or in my body language. Though I am slowly growing more comfortable disclosing the fact of its existence, I continue to contain my sensations and the realities of my embodiment. I fear that expressing my pain will make people uncomfortable. I fear that it may invite expressions of pity, or admiration for my resilience. Even worse, I fear unsolicited advice and suspicions of fraud. Alongside my own reservations, there is societal pressure to perform able-bodiedness: to adhere to standards of the ideal and normal (or the ‘corporeal standard’2) that we use to define good, civilized, productive, valuable bodies and minds. This creates an internalized desire to only demonstrate behaviours deemed socially acceptable (in order to appear ‘functional’ and ‘normal’ one must always maintain control over their body-mind). And so, I conceal my pain; I build a wall between my embodied self and others.

My chronic pain started in my jaw when I was 14. Although pain now inhabits many parts of my body, spreading and shifting as I age, my jaw is the only diagnosable source of the symptoms I experience. There is a clear reason why my jaw causes pain, but it is only one piece of my specific chronic pain and illness mystery3. Among countless inconclusive tests and MRI’s, the one conclusion that remains is that I have an asymmetrical joint, the left side much bigger than the right4. My crooked jaw is arthritic, and the discs slip out of place—making audible cracks and pops—each and every time I open my mouth wide.

One of the worst things I can do—the most blatant exacerbator of my symptoms—is yawn. Yawning and my chronic pain exist in an endless feedback loop: chronic pain is exhausting and causes me to yawn relentlessly. A yawn pushes my jaw to its limits, causing immediate and cumulative pain with each occurrence. I try to do it with my mouth closed, sometimes putting my fist under my chin to stop my mouth from widening. Regardless, the tension it creates in my joints and muscles is painful. So, recently, in yet another attempt to find viable pain management tactics, I googled ‘how to stop yawning’5. Below the search bar a preview of a Live Science listicle titled “5 Tips to Avoid an Embarrassing Yawn” appeared. To the right of the text, it showed a stock image of several people in a boardroom, with a woman in the foreground covering her mouth as she yawns.

Though I know the primary reason the average person would want to stop yawning is due to its connotations with boredom, disinterest, and fatigue—the anxiety that consumes me each time I feel one coming on temporarily erases this understanding. Momentarily, I was suspended in another belief. I allowed myself to believe that my particular association with yawning and pain was the predominant reason a ‘normal’ person would want to suppress their yawns. Perhaps self-centred, or just overly optimistic, I thought the search results would provide me with methods to reduce the pain that is a direct result of my own yawning. Instead, what I found were tips to make myself more unobtrusive and presentable in a boardroom meeting. The results reflected my anxieties related to concealing the functions of my body—its sensations and inner happenings. It reinforced the idea that a yawn is inappropriate,  disrespectful, and unprofessional. It reminded me that like my pain, yawning is an inevitable occurrence that I often feel I need to conceal or resist in the presence of others: not only to reduce my discomfort but in the name of appearing to be in control of my unruly body. 

Since then, I have been doing sloppy and scattered research, approaching yawning from different angles: its mechanisms and triggers, its historical interpretations, its connections to illness, its contagiousness in relationship to empathy, and its universality across almost all species of vertebrates. Everything I have found indicates that the physiological significance of the yawn is poorly understood—there is no clear scientific or medical explanation for why it happens, or how it serves us. For example, there is very little evidence that indicates a yawn increases arousal when we are, in fact, tired or bored. The most commonly held belief, despite having been debunked, is that yawning is the body’s way of expelling ‘bad air’ and increasing oxygen levels to the brain.

The general acceptance that a yawn is nothing more than a physical expression of boredom or fatigue feels reductive. After I read more about yawning, this oversimplification started to seem like a grasping to assign meaning, an explaining-away in the face of inconclusive scientific cause. The prevailing assumption that frames yawning as socially frowned upon—an individual failure to stay alert and engaged—is overlooking a vast range of possibilities for why they occur and minimizing huge gaps in comprehension. In locating the yawn as a failure of the individual who performs it, the unease created by a collective lack of understanding is redirected. The body that demonstrates unruly behaviour becomes the target for discomfort that arises from the fact of all bodies' unruliness. Assigning this meaning to the individual act, then, allows an avoidance of the acknowledgment that all bodies are not entirely knowable through science and medicine.

Amongst all the hypotheses, all the lack of clarity, the theory I am most drawn to suggests that a person’s susceptibility to a contagious yawn is linked to a capacity for empathy. The likelihood of ‘contracting’ a contagious yawn then varies from person to person, but also shifts with circumstance. For example, there is evidence to indicate that you are far more likely to reciprocate the yawn of someone you share a close personal relationship with. This theory suggests that mirroring another’s yawn is some unconscious and embodied display of the emotional connection we feel to those around us: the contagious yawn is indicative of our ability to attune to and express understanding of the experiences of others. I wonder what this might tell us about our universal and physiological need to be connected to one another. 

Obviously, the desire I feel to conceal my yawning in order to be polite is vastly different from my daily performance of able-bodiedness (and my willingness, desire, and ability to adopt a non-disabled alter-ego is not a universal experience of disability or chronic pain). The discomfort a yawn may elicit by displaying perceived disinterest or boredom differs greatly from the discomfort of witnessing someone else’s pain. But, I do think that the “embarrassing” yawn is symbolic of how we internalize cultural ideals of “clean and proper” self.6 

I am tempted here to say that a yawn is representative of the abject. In Kristeva’s analysis of abjection, she writes “it is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, and order. What does not respect borders, positions, and rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, and the composite.”7 In Kristeva’s definition, abjection is a response to that which disrupts our desire to maintain a controlled and socially acceptable representation of self. It is the negative response to our leaky bodies, our excess, which reminds us of our bodies' ambiguous borders, and their fragility. The abject is that which disrupts our constructed boundaries between the “self” and the “other”.

The notion that a yawn can be “embarrassing” in certain contexts implies that it is a demonstration of a lack of self-control and that it is disorderly. It is, in some way—a reminder of our bodily vulnerability and mortality, of the body’s unruliness, of our inability to fully grasp and explain our internal mechanisms. If the popular theory that yawning is the expulsion of ‘bad air’ is taken into account, it can also be read as an expulsion of excess, or a leakage. The yawn’s potential for transmissibility underscores Kristeva’s notion of abjection through its ability to dismantle and upset perceived boundaries between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. To yawn, and to witness it spread through a room, unveils a mysterious inter-connectedness between ourselves and others. Its contagiousness (the immediacy and visibility of its contagiousness), raises questions about what it means to construct a concept of the self that is entirely independent and separate from the ‘other’. In addition, if it is read as a nonverbal and preconscious form of communication, it deviates from how we understand the structure of communication itself. It is not willful or within our control: we do not read or interpret the way a yawn passes from one person to another, we do not choose whose yawns we mirror. It does not follow the order of language, or body language, for that matter.  

This idea of disrupting language (or ‘order’) is a recurring theme in writing about pain. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry was one of the firstand remains one of the most pertinenttheoretical texts to discuss pain in great depth. Scarry’s book revolves around the idea that physical pain defies language and is entirely inexpressible. She writes: 

“For the person in pain, so incontestably and unnegotiably present is it that ‘having pain’ may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it is to ‘have certainty,’ while for the other person, it is so elusive that ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is ‘to have doubt.’”8

Even though I willfully suppress and conceal my pain in most circumstances, part of this comes from a sense that when I have tried to express it, I have always failed. I have tried countless times to describe my pain—to general practitioners, countless specialists, friends, family, and partners. Because of my struggle to articulate my symptoms and sensations, I often feel responsible for the mysteriousness of my own ills. I feel as though my inability to communicate my own pain clearly and concisely has contributed to (created, even) the lack of resolution or understanding of my chronic condition. The lack of understanding then, is a direct result of my own individual failures. My inability to express my pain means that the pain cannot be diagnosed, cannot be explained, and therefore cannot be legitimized and treated. 

Pain is generally understood as inherently threatening to a body’s ability to function, and as such, a disruption to the desired ‘clean and proper self’. It is associated with a wound, illness, or injury—and interpreted as the body’s warning sign that something is wrong and needs fixing. It can disrupt borders between self/other—in that witnessing pain can function as a reminder of our own vulnerability and ability to experience it. But, it also creates a rupture between the person witnessing it and the person experiencing it, in that it defies clear articulation, and therefore true comprehension of what an individual experience of pain actually feels like. Whether it is our pain, or someone else’s—it drives us to search for cause and meaning, and to work to eliminate, dismantle, or cure that cause. In this way, it is understood to serve a functional purpose—it is an indication of something amiss, a clue leading us to the source, and then, a solution. The expression of pain is then interpreted as a call to action, a call to find meaning. 

In the case of chronic pain, when there is a lack of visible, external cause—and in my case, a lack of clear/comprehensive diagnosable cause—it crosses over into meaninglessness. It loses its physiological purpose, and instead becomes a failure: of medicine, of self-control, of health, and of language. The chronically pained body is the abject body. The expression of chronic pain disrupts our core beliefs that pain must and can be resolved, that it requires and constitutes immediate action. When pain becomes chronic, it upsets the belief that pain follows reason, that medicine can explain and eliminate our discomfort. 

Because of the way my pain manifests and because of its inherent invisibility and un-diagnosability, there is a contradiction to my desire to conceal it: I sometimes feel the need to demonstrate proof of its existence. I've been wondering if this is part of my current fixation on yawning. Yawning is a marker of my disability in a way that nothing else is. It is the clearest, simplest example of my bodily difference: the most basic thing that all bodies do, where my body deviates from the ‘normal’ one. It is tied to the only diagnosable source of my symptoms, and in knowing this, I allow the pain a yawn causes to hold a legitimacy that my other aches and discomfort do not. If I am in the right company, yawning is the only consistent instance I deem it permissible to let out a little “ow” or “fuck”. It is the point where—even if only occasionally—I allow myself to break my own rules and vocalize my discomfort. It is the point at which I break character, pulling back the curtain, even if only a little.

It is also representative of an unspoken empathy and solidarity I yearn for. Maybe I just like the idea of yawning shamelessly, of sitting with its obscurity, and witnessing it as empathy spreading around a room. I like the idea of it being symbolic of our universal vulnerability, as a wrecking ball that can dismantle the false barriers we create between ourselves and others. I like the idea of giving up on finding an explanation, and instead just acknowledging what it makes possible in the way it ties us together.





  1. In disability studies this is often referred to as “passing” as non-disabled. A common behaviour among chronically-pained and invisibly disabled people, this presents an internal dilemma, as described by Rosemarie Garland Thompson: “If…disabled people pursue normalization too much, they risk denying limitations and pain for the comfort of others and may edge into the self-betrayal associated with ‘passing’ [as non-disabled]” (Extraordinary Bodies 13). While concealing pain and illness allows invisibly disabled people to ‘pass’ and therefore assimilate in social settings, it also involves the minimization or denial of needs and embodied experience and the sacrifice of one’s identity as disabled. Concealment may also contribute to stigmatization by causing others to doubt the reality of one's lived experience when the choice is made to reveal or communicate their disability. 
  2. The corporeal standard is a reference to Fiona Kumari Campbell’s definition of ableism. She defines ableisms as “a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then, is cast as a diminished state of being human.”
  3. I know why my jaw causes me pain, but after years of searching for answers, no one can tell me why sometimes my knuckles get stiff, or why my legs and feet swell and change colour when it’s hot out, or my eyes blur, or why I’m dizzy and fatigued all the time, and so on. The lack of a clear diagnosable cause for the majority of my symptoms often feels as though it renders the reality of my experience illegitimate. 
  4. Or perhaps it’s the right that is bigger than the left. Upon viewing my MRIs, a surgeon once told me it’s a miracle how symmetrical my face looks. And so, this detail is lost in the way my flesh conceals my bones. It’s as if the flesh itself understands the arbitrary and problematic rules I impose on how I present myself, and works alongside me to conceal any perceived faults. 
  5. After years of seeking diagnosis and pain management from medical professionals, sometimes Google is all there is left. I know I really shouldn’t do this. Everyone knows Google has terrible bedside manner and will more often than not diagnose you with terminal illness. But after years of dismissal, inconclusive tests, hours-long specialist visits, and no answers, sometimes I feel the need to take matters into my own hands. 
  6. I use Kristeva’s concept of the ‘clean and proper’ body here. Kristeva notes that abjection is a response to that which violates our desires to maintain a ‘clean and proper self’. The concept of the clean and proper body then becomes interchangeable with the ideal, ‘normal’, and able body-mind: or the corporeal standard. Abjection in response to disability can be read as the result of disability disrupting the corporeal standard, the unsettling of identity and order.
  7. Kelly Oliver and Julia Kristeva, “Powers of Horror (Abridged),” in The Portable Kristeva (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2002), pp. 229-263, 232.
  8. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985), 4.


The above essay was written by Toronto-based artist and writer, Hannah Bullock.