Overcoming Fear and Tension in Stuttering
Chapter 8 from the book Advice to Those Who Stutter
By James L. Aten
Most people talk without much difficulty most of the time. It’s true that people hesitate and stumble over words at times, especially when under stress or fatigue, but they show little concern over such mistakes. What, then, makes your speech different and what can you do to help yourself? Invariably, the person who stutters overreacts to his mistakes. He fears they will occur, becomes tense and feels helpless. During the time that tension is so high, the flow of speech stops or will not start. As you continue to have these tense moments that become different from what normal speakers experience, fear increases to higher and higher levels. You come to dread and perhaps avoid speaking. Many stutterers learn that their greatest enemies are fear and tension. If the battle with stuttering is to be won, fear and tension must be gradually eliminated. Let’s look at some battle plans that have helped quite a few stutterers conquer the majority of their fears, eliminate excessive tensions, and find that speech in most situations can once again come easily.
Conquering Fear. We have all probably heard that the way to eliminate fear is to “just face up to it.” We have learned all too slowly that for some stutterers, fear may actually increase rather than decrease if they continue to face fear situations and fail. They may experience the same old tension, and fail to get the word out, while attempting to “just go ahead and face their fears.” For most of you, fear grew because of repeated failure and the resulting embarrassment over that failure. Your hope is that fear can be unlearned by handling hard words and situations better. Performance builds realistic confidence that can become a substitute for fear. Here’s one way: Substitute Positive Planning for Fear and Anticipated Failure.
Stuttering (the fear and tension build-up part) usually begins much earlier in time than you normally think. When the phone rings, you may get into a tense and helpless state while going to answer it. The trouble doesn’t suddenly begin as you start to say “Hello.” You have learned that tricks such as delaying or rushing often let you down, and so your fear spirals upward. When told that you have a job interview in two days, you often begin worrying about how you’ll do and expect failure. Having failed last time, you probably will again unless you plan a new approach to the task:
1. Picture yourself approaching the person who will be interviewing you. Take a breath, then let it all go. This feels good and for the first time you experience the condition your speech musculature should be in if words are to come out without tension.
2. Imagine extending your hand slowly to shake hands. Your body movements are slow and confident ones. This reduces the tendency to rush or force speech. Mentally you are calmer. The employer says, “Hello, I’m
John Wood. You must be….” Just thinking about answering this with your first and last name fills you with fear and you feel your breath tighten.
3. LET GO of that tight breath. Think about the easy movements you could make in answering “Hi, I’m
Ed Jones.” At first just picture the movements, then after that initial surge of fear subsides, try answering with a kind of easy, half-sigh-like “Hi”—Pause—easy again—“I’m Ed”—Pause again—let tension go—easy onset—“Jones.”
As you rehearse this, several things begin to happen. First, you begin to see that there is less to fear if you don’t jump and answer with your first name, which is usually very hard for you. Second, as one stutterer in our field has said, “Time must become your Friend.” You will learn that “haste makes waste,” even though a few times in the past it has worked.
Fear won’t go away by just waiting or going slower; you have to do some positive planning and desensitizing yourself to the employer’s presence and request. You must practice the introduction many times and not just alone but with someone. After you have experienced success alone, ask your wife or friend to be the employer and rehearse. First answer silently, then softly, then in a normal voice. Whether you stutter during the interview or not is of lesser importance. The chances are you will approach the situation easier than you have in a long time and that your actual stuttering will be less severe. New approaches to handling the feared situation bring gradual improvement by reducing fear. This comes through hard work, not magic, pills, tricks, or waiting until you “feel better.” The same type of practice and rehearsal can be used in preparing to say “Hello” on the telephone. In fact, you may find the phone less fear-inducing and want to try it first, or, perhaps just greeting someone casually. As one stutterer said, “I try not to go out and put myself into a very difficult situation at first, where I know I’m going to fail.” He had learned to approach some situations, though obviously not all of them, by thinking about responding the new easier, relaxed way, and with practice found that he had lost much of his fear. Less fear means less tension in speech.
Conquering Tension. You must learn to substitute easy, slower, more relaxed movements for rushed, tight, forced movements. Typical tension sites are your chest and breath, your throat and vocal cords, jaw, lips and tongue. The practice suggested here can make for success in reducing the fear that follows from blocked movements, so think of these as stages of therapy that you can “put together” for greater effect.
Choose some words that begin with sounds that you think of as being hard—those on which you often stutter. Speech normally begins with a relaxed, unconscious flow of breath. Practice sighing and letting voice come easily. You don’t make voice, it just happens if you will let it. The same is true of sounds you make with tongue and lips. Feel yourself gently close the lips for the “P” or move the tongue to form such sounds as “T” and “K,” then go ahead and say the rest of the word. Notice how little effort speaking takes. Fear has resulted in too much forcing to get words out. You must learn what ‘not forcing’ is, and practice until easy movements become habitual. First, practice at a very soft, almost silent level, then gradually at a normal voice level. Practice the movement gently to make the difficult word begin easier, then work on other words that begin with that same movement. Assuming that you engage faithfully in daily practice, try a different sound each week. Fear of words lessens as you repeatedly prove to yourself you have a new, easy way of producing them that is becoming automatic. As you practice, be sure not to let the tongue, lips, vocal cords, or breath become tight or touch too hard. No word or speech movement requires conscious effort. Feel the relaxed easy movements into and out of words. Stop and begin the easy movements again for the next word series. Now, you are talking in phrases that are short and that you have confidence you can initiate, if you remember to use the easy beginning you have practiced. Remember, speech sounds better in short phrases with frequent pauses.
By conquering fear-arousal through learning to plan your approach, and then using the easy movements which keep tension from making you feel helpless, you are beginning to control stuttering rather than letting it rule you. Certain speaking situations become easier. At this point you must begin to integrate your success. That is, you are not just having good and bad days, you are creating some successes out of potential failure. That’s what building confidence is all about—and stutterers say time after time, “I talk better when I’m more confident.” When you have created a better performance, you can realistically feel more confidence. The model is then begun for turning ‘bad cycles’ into good ones. You are then able to turn your attention to fluency rather than frequent expectation of stuttering. One of our adult stutterers who successfully went through the above said, “Now I think more about my fluent successes, and does that ever help!”
You appreciate most in life those things you do for yourself. Getting over stuttering takes tremendous self-discipline and desire. We have found that just practicing easy movements without trying to reduce fear is not too successful, since high fear keeps you from remembering the new easier speech movements at the time when you most need to use them. Also, just trying to reduce fear without giving you something to do that is new — and that works — may simply allow fear to creep back into the situation very quickly. We have seen that the majority of the stutterers we work with, using the above procedures, achieve a significant degree of fluency in most situations.