Stuttering and Conversation Anxiety

Posted by: David

Today I’ll be writing about my experience as a stutterer and what contributed to my present-day fluency.

My experience as a stutterer was probably rather typical. I’m not sure about the onset, but it probably started when I was in middle elementary school. It became progressively worse due to social embarrassment and ended fairly abruptly at the end of college. I have had a handful of stuttering episodes since that time, usually corresponding to high levels of conversation anxiety, but as a Park Ranger and substitute teacher I have also been highly successful in public speaking. From my analysis, I think that stuttering has both a physical and a psychological component. As my dad (Mike) likes to say, its cause is “multidetermined.”

What were the causes of my stuttering? I expect it has some to do with the English language itself, with social expectations, with my pride and vanity, and with my physical nature. In regards to my physiology, I have a fairly high level of energy. As a child I would run to get places. I think my energy level was one of the major causes as well as how my brain’s visual center is more developed that my verbal center. My brain would think faster than I was capable plugging the correct words together when vocalizing thoughts. I was also quite shy and I had a tendency to be nervous in the first place in front of groups of people. So when I would stutter and ‘block’ in front of the class, my uneasiness toward the next speaking event would compound my conversation anxiety.

As a student, the worse situations (as one can imagine) were when we were reading a textbook aloud and one student after another would read going down the rows. The anxiety would build and build as my turn approached. The anxiety along with the mental image of the embarrassment of public stuttering would set me up for disaster. Each event was always a disaster. It’s important to note that I feel that my mental vision of embarrassment would increase anxiety and set me up for a self-fulfilling prophesy. I would envision a stuttering event and it would happen.

These anxiety-driven stuttering events occurred into my early twenties. Fortunately, not all teachers required me to speak in front of the class, and as the other students became older, there was less snickering as my classmates matured. A compassionate classroom, although rare, was always helpful.

I’ll also note that I used my stuttering as a manipulative device to get things my way sometimes. I can look back at a few events and know this to be true. But let me also make it clear that my stuttering was real, yet there were a handful of events where I consciously/subconsciously abused my speech problem for my own selfish motives.

So,  what did not work for me? That’s simple: continuous phonation. That’s a classic technique where the stutter slides into the difficult sounds. For example, instead of saying, “David is a boy.” The stutter would say, “…hhhdDavid is a hhhboy.” Basically, you learn to slide into difficult sounds. In my case, “d” and “b” were difficult sound to produce. In looking back and from hearing adult stutters today, it seems like this technique is just a crutch. It gets people talking and semi-functional, but it doesn’t solve the problem. For some, it at least helps them to talk.

What did work for me? Again, that’s simple: visualizations of fluency. In college, I was referred to a professor, who worked in the speech department who was working with a graduate student on conversation anxiety. I couldn’t recall who these two people were, but the theory was simple and it worked for me. They used positive visualization techniques combined with relaxation to reduce anxiety and subsequently stuttering and blocking events. It worked and I probably had less than five sessions total.

My preparation for each session consisted of writing down and visualizing instances where conversation anxiety would be high, such as answering the phone, public speaking, talking with persons of authority, etc. And I was to start thinking about those situations in a positive light. I was to envision them as moments of fluent speaking, of clear and thoughtful moments of communication. Then during each session, the professor would have us sit in relaxing chairs and help us relax through standard relaxation techniques. Then after we were relaxed, we were to visualize the fluent conversational situations.

In those days, my studies were so time-consuming that I was always physically exhausted. The funny thing was that I never really got a chance to visualize the events during sessions, because each time I fell fast asleep before the professor was done talking us into a state of relaxation. But that didn’t really matter, because the visualization work had been done. During my preparations I had already visualized the situations. Much of the work was then done in my preparation. Throughout each week, just the fact that I knew that the session was approaching forced me to visualize moments of fluency.

I’m thankful that I was able to stop stuttering when I was in my twenties. I expect that stuttering becomes more and more integrated into one’s physical nature, the longer the stutterer lives with the problem.

Please note that I think that this technique can be used for all sorts of mental and emotional pathologies. What we think and gather in our minds is potentially harmful. I had collected years of negative thoughts, thoughts of failure, thoughts of ridicule, and vain thoughts that changed who I was. As much as possible, we need to lift ourselves up as well as others. We need to fill our minds with good thoughts, thoughts that please our God. In many ways, my experience is a just microcosm of how many of our pathologies play out. We need to fill up and fill others up on goodness. Our thoughts are very powerful indeed.

Lastly, I’ll speculate one thing about my predisposition to stuttering. As a child, I really did lack rhythm. Today, I’m in a marimba band and the idea surfaces regularly: what if I had more experiences in music and rhythm during my early childhood, would that have affected my predisposition for stuttering? I don’t know. But I do feel that my limited rhythm as a child may have affected the physical nature to my stuttering. So, if you do have a child that stutters, consider playing the drums and sing songs with him or her.

But mostly give that child a community that pours out love and teach the child to do the same to others. The root cause of my stuttering may have had a physical side, but it also had much to do with my world- and self-perception. We all have problems that manifest due to this. For me it was stuttering. What is it or was it for you?

If you have a child that stutters, give the child the food of love and teach the child to feed love to others. I also think it’s important to provide the child a truthful perception of reality. Of course, they don’t need to know the nuts and bolts. But generally, the child needs to know that even though there are wicked people in the world, there are also wonderful loving people in the world, and that sometimes these people are the same person. But most of all, the child needs to know that God indisputably loves them and ultimately it is in him that we gain our confidence. He is the one that we should seek to please. God must be the root of our confidence. And it is in this confidence that secures our visualizations and our mental imagery that guides our daily lives.



Filed under stuttering

2 responses to “Stuttering and Conversation Anxiety

  1. Anom

    This was an interesting read. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Matt

    Very interesting ! I am a 28 year old stutterer. Stuttering has completely shaped my life ( in a mostly negative way ). I am going to give visualizations a try. Thank you for sharing your story 🙂

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