You’re mid-sentence, scratching your head in frustration. You know the word you want to say, you just can’t get it out. Has this happened to you? If so, you’re not alone. Many adults report word-finding difficulty.
While not uncommon, this tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon can still feel frustrating, embarrassing, and confusing. Thankfully, there are strategies you can use when you have word-retrieval problems.
What is word-finding difficulty?
Word-finding difficulty, also called anomia or word-retrieval difficulty, refers to challenges saying a known word while you’re speaking or writing.
How common is it to have trouble finding words?
Occasional anomia is a universal phenomenon. People of all ages experience word-finding difficulty. That said, it’s important to note how often it happens, since anomia is more common among people with neurological disorders. When word-retrieval problems in adults become persistent or severe, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor.
What causes frequent word-finding difficulty?
Word-retrieval problems for adults can have several causes, such as:
Typical age-related changes to the brain
Mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety
Not getting enough sleep
Alcohol or drug use
6 tips to help you find or recall words
1 Describe the word you’re trying to remember
Talk “around” the object, person, or place you’re trying to name. This strategy, called circumlocution, might help you retrieve the word in question. At the very least, it will help your conversational partner understand your message. An example of circumlocution would be saying, “Can you grab me the–um–thing that holds my coffee?” Your conversational partner might say, “Your mug? Sure! Here you go.”
2 Visualize the word you’re trying to recall
Sometimes you might know the first letter of the word that’s on the tip of your tongue. In these instances, visualize that letter. In our previous example, you might visualize the letter “m.” You might also share this detail out loud: “It starts with an m…”
3 Try to relax
Easier said than done, but try to remain calm if you forget a word. The more pressure you put on yourself to retrieve the word, the harder it will be. Take a breath and pause. If the word doesn’t come to you, no problem! Try another strategy, or keep the conversation moving. More likely than not, the word will pop into your head eventually.
4 Write a script ahead of time
Do you have an upcoming doctor’s appointment or a meaningful conversation with a loved one? Try scripting what you want to say beforehand. Write it out and practice it. You won’t be able to script every conversation, but you can use this strategy when precision is especially important.
5 Take care of your brain health
Research shows that getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and being involved in social activities can improve your brain health. This, in turn, can improve your cognitive-linguistic functioning and your ability to recall words.
6 Seek professional help
Speech therapy helps people with word-finding difficulties. A speech therapist can provide you with personalized activities and tasks that will strengthen your ability to recall words. Depending on your specific needs, your speech therapist might use evidence-based treatments such as Semantic Feature Analysis (SFA), Verb Network Strengthening Treatment (VNeST), Semantic Priming to Improve Comprehension and Expression of Sentences (SPICES), generative naming tasks, and more!
Tips to help a loved one with word-finding difficulty
Conversation is a two-way street. If your loved one is forgetting words, there are things you can do to support them with word-retrieval problems.
Avoid quizzing. While your intentions might be good, asking questions while withholding the answer can be stressful, especially for people with word-finding difficulty. Instead of asking questions (for example, “Where did you go to eat? Come on…I know you know the name of that restaurant”), make statements: “I see you brought home leftovers from Tony’s Cafe. Yum!”
Fill in the blanks, with permission. Ask your loved one if they’d like you to intervene when they can’t recall a word. They might prefer that you check with them before you guess the word you think they’re describing. They might also ask you to give them the first letter of the word in question.
Keep the conversation going. The ultimate goal of conversation is for two people to connect with each other. Focus on moments of connection with your loved one. Try not to let interruptions due to anomia define your interaction with them.
Word-finding difficulty can be frustrating. Next time this happens to you or a loved one, keep these strategies in mind to help improve the conversation. And if your trouble finding words is getting worse or interfering with your everyday life, don’t hesitate to contact your health care provider.