“What if I stutter?”
“I’m going to stutter on this word.”
“What if I get stuck?”
“I have to speak in front of how many people?”
“What will they think of me if I stutter?”
Racing heart, trembling, difficulty breathing. Tingly hands, chest pain, stomach pain.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.
Research shows that approximately 60% of adults who receive speech therapy for stuttering also experience social anxiety. That’s compared with just 6.8% of the general population.
Although anxiety isn’t the root cause of stuttering, feeling worried that you might stutter can affect the smoothness of your speech. Anxiety and fear of public speaking creates a feedback loop, where fear of stuttering leads to increased tension associated with speech.
So how can you speak with ease when you’re nervous? Here’s the good news: There are techniques you can use to break this cycle and manage your stutter when you’re feeling anxious.
Why do people stutter when nervous?
About 1% of the population stutters. People who stutter may become socially anxious and fear speaking in front of others. Many worry that their stuttering will hurt their ability to participate in social activities and advance in their career.
Negative thoughts and beliefs associated with stuttering can actually lead to increased stuttering. People may then avoid situations in which they’ll have to talk.
When you feel anxious that you might stutter, that’s your nervous system telling you that speaking in front of others doesn’t feel safe. The brain remembers negative experiences and associates painful memories with stuttering.
So, how do we retrain the brain so that our nervous system recognizes speaking as a fulfilling and positive experience, one that leads to human and social connection?
What happens in your body when you feel anxious about stuttering?
Our body’s autonomic nervous system is responsible for automatic, involuntary functions of the body, such as our heart rate and breathing.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two systems: the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, which stimulates stress when triggered. When our body perceives a stressor, the sympathetic nervous system becomes activated. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are produced by the adrenal glands. Our heart rate increases. Blood pressure rises. Our lungs hyperventilate.
When this process happens repeatedly, our bodies go into “survival mode,” meaning our bodies are on high alert.
Your nervous system doesn’t recognize the difference between having to make a public speech and coming into contact with a tiger. If you’re a person who stutters, when you’re standing in front of a group of people, anticipating having to say your name, or preparing to make a phone call, your sympathetic nervous system might respond.
Then, when the perceived danger is gone, the parasympathetic system activates. Your heart rate decreases, blood pressure lowers, and blood flow returns to the vital organs. The parasympathetic nervous system allows for healing to occur.
An experienced speech therapist will use a holistic, whole-person approach to help you better respond to perceived speaking “dangers” with courage and confidence.
5 ways to manage a stutter when you’re nervous
Here are some techniques to help calm your nervous system and create positive experiences when you speak.
1. Try using breathing techniques.
When practiced regularly, breathing exercises can reduce anxiety, increase the quality of your sleep, improve digestion, and so much more. Many people who stutter and people with anxiety tend to take quick, shallow breaths, which doesn’t allow enough oxygen to enter the body. The breath is also what turns the voice on!
I recommend Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing for my clients. However, there are thousands of breathing techniques if this one doesn’t work for you. My tip would be to inhale through the nose, then increase the length of the exhalation. The exhale is what calms the nervous system down.
2. When you’re experiencing fear and anxiety, allow your body to shake and move!
Rather than holding adrenaline in and creating more tension in your muscles, allow the adrenaline to move through your body. This will release tension, which will allow your breath to move freely.
3. Slow down your mind, body, and speech rate.
Techniques to slow your speech rate include pausing, stretching out your words, using over-articulation, and increasing mouth opening. These types of techniques are taught in speech therapy sessions, and you can read more about them in our blog post here.
4. Notice where you’re holding tension in your body.
Is your tension associated with a negative thought, emotion, or experience related to stuttering? Simply begin to notice when and where you have that feeling. Over time, you can retrain your brain to replace negative thoughts and emotions with positive, fulfilling interactions and compassionate practices.
5. Join a stuttering support group.
Find a community of individuals who understand the challenges you’re going through. Know that you are not alone. Social connections stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” response.
Working with a licensed psychotherapist or counselor, along with a speech therapist trained to work with people who stutter, can help you manage your anxiety and experience the joy of connecting with others through speech.