Most people who stutter believe that anxiety causes stuttering or increases stuttering severity. There is an obvious link between anxiety and stuttering, but, as with most aspects of the condition of stuttering, there is more to it than meets the eye.
Many years ago, I presented a research study at The Third International Congress of Fluency Disorders in which I asked both normally fluent and stuttering speakers to develop language in whole word units instead of syllables while producing only a voice or while talking silently (as if the mute button had been turned on). I then asked them to describe the feeling. Both groups answered that they felt choked, tense, and uncomfortable. The people who stutter said that this way of speaking reminded them of stuttering. The fluent speakers reported that this is not at all the way they speak.
This experiment lends support to what I have observed so often in the clinic. Processing speech in the way that people who stutter do, not only makes speech stuttered, it also leads to feelings of tension and anxiety. People tend to believe that anxiety causes stuttering, or stuttering causes anxiety. However, both anxiety and stuttering are the natural outcomes of faulty speech processing. Over time these two conditions become so linked in the speaker’s mind that any feeling of anxiety will exacerbate faulty processing and, therefore, increase stuttering. In turn, a stuttering incident increases anxiety. This leads to increased faulty processing and, therefore, increased stuttering.
Many people believe that the goal of therapy for stuttering is to reduce anxiety. They believe that if the person who stutters could just relax the stuttering would disappear. While it is true that giving up the effort of trying to get words out fluently, may lead to more automatic processing and thus reduce both stuttering and anxiety, it is asking the impossible to try to feel relaxed when you are still trying to control speech.
One of the big frustrations that people who stutter often encounter is being told to relax so that they won’t stutter. Trying to follow this impossible, though seemingly good advice, only increases anxiety. I have treated yoga experts and people who meditate daily. They are great at relaxing, but the second they try to control their words, relaxation evaporates.
When clients learn to produce speech automatically, without thinking about words and how to say them, the result is not only flowing speech, it is a feeling of comfort and relaxation. Trying to reduce anxiety may inadvertently lead to better speech processing, but there is a more direct approach. Learning to produce speech automatically and without control directly leads to a decrease in anxiety and stuttering.