In a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 34% of adults reported that on most days, they feel completely overwhelmed by stress. This kind of stress can have a big impact on our lives—and for some people, it can trigger or increase stuttering.
If you've ever found yourself (or your child) stumbling over words or repeating syllables when feeling anxious, you're not alone. In this article, we explore the connection between stress, anxiety, and stuttering. You’ll also learn some strategies for managing a stutter in stressful situations.
What is stuttering?
Stuttering is a speech disorder characterized by disruptions to normal fluency and rhythm. It usually begins in childhood, and people often grow out of it as they get older. However, some people do carry their stutter into adulthood.
The main symptoms of stuttering are the repetition of sounds, syllables, or words. For example, someone might say "s-s-soup" instead of "soup," or "mu-mu-mu-mummy" instead of "mummy." Sometimes, stuttering can take the form of prolongations, where a sound is held for a long time, such as "ssssssoup."
In more severe cases, there can be blocks, where the flow of speech is entirely stopped or interrupted. These disruptive patterns can vary in frequency and intensity. They are often more noticeable when the person is stressed, excited, or anxious.
It's important to know that stuttering is a form of verbal diversity. That means it’s a different way of speaking. It’s part of who you are, and it doesn’t need to be “fixed.” However, you can seek out speech therapy for support in managing your stutter, so you can build your confidence, self-acceptance, and ease of speech.
Can stress cause stuttering?
Stuttering is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic, neurological, and environmental factors. While there isn't any evidence to suggest that stress can be the primary cause of stuttering, it could play a role in the increase in stuttering for some people.
It's not clear why, exactly, stress can make stuttering more likely. It may be because stressful thoughts and emotions cause physical tension in the throat and mouth muscles, which then disrupts speech. Or it could be that a person notices their stutter more when they're feeling dysregulated emotionally.
What is clear, however, is that for many people who stutter, stress can be a major trigger. That's why it's crucial to develop strategies for both stress and the stutter itself, whether it’s deep breathing exercises, working with a speech therapist, or both.
Does stuttering get worse with anxiety?
Yes, stuttering can be increased by anxiety. But how? Well, fear causes your body to release cortisol and prepare for “fight or flight.” This fear response leads your body’s vocal muscles to tighten, which makes it harder to pronounce words—and for some people, could increase stuttering.
Anxiety can also lead to negative thought patterns and self-doubt, which can directly impact fluency. For instance, anxious thoughts like "I will definitely stutter" or "They will judge me" can become self-fulfilling prophecies, making stuttering more pronounced.
How to manage stuttering in stressful situations
Social anxiety is extremely common among adults and children with a stutter. This can make it difficult to overcome speaking challenges, attend social events, and perform well at work or school. However, with the right support and some helpful techniques, you can learn to manage stuttering, reduce stress, and regain control of your speech.
Here are 4 ways to manage stuttering in stressful situations.
1 Try breathing techniques
Techniques like box breathing can greatly reduce anxiety. Just breathe in slowly for a count of four, then hold your breath for another count of four, and finally, exhale gently for four counts. You can do this sequence as many times as needed until you start feeling more at ease.
2 Get moving
Stress creates tension, which can tighten your mouth and throat muscles (and make stuttering more likely). If you're feeling anxious, try jumping up and down or going for a walk to loosen your muscles!
3 Slow your mind, body, and speech rate
Slowing your breathing can also help with feelings of anxiety. 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.
4 Stay confident
Even if your stutter continues, recognize that what you have to say is valuable. Try not to worry what others may think. The more you continue to speak even if a stutter occurs, the easier this will become.
When to seek extra support for stuttering
Ultimately, anxiety and stress can increase your stuttering, even if they aren't the root cause of it. But don't worry—with the right support, you can learn to speak confidently and overcome these challenges.
If you're struggling to make progress, some research shows CBT therapy can help people who stutter overcome negative thinking patterns and anxiety. However, it's important to address the underlying cause of stuttering, in addition to any mental health challenges.
Speech therapy is an effective way to do this. When you work with a speech-language pathologist (also known as a speech therapist), you can learn new skills that break the cycle of anxiety and stuttering.
A speech therapist can also teach you how to feel more confident and handle the emotions and thoughts that can make stuttering more likely. Together, you'll be able to identify and reach the speech goals that really matter to you.
If you're ready to get started with speech therapy, Expressable can help. After a free consultation to learn more about your goals, Expressable will match you with one of our experienced speech therapists based on your needs, location, and availability. You can get started with Expressable here!