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Stuttering When Stressed: Why It Happens (& How to Combat It)

It can be heartbreaking watching your child struggle with a stuttering problem. But it can be even more heart-wrenching watching them stuttering when stressed. When they are involved with lots of other kids or rushed to decide their choice at a fast food place, you may notice their stutter becomes more pronounced.

In this article, we will address the problem of stuttering while anxious and stressed. We will discuss why it happens and how to help your child combat this painful issue.

What is Stuttering?

Stuttering, also called stammering, is a fluency disorder that disrupts the flow of speech. Those that stutter know what they are trying to say, but have trouble getting the words across in a fluent way. There are several kinds of stuttering. Let’s explore them.

Developmental Stuttering

About 3 million Americans stutter. Although all age groups can be affected by stuttering, children tend to experience it most often. About 5 to 10% of all young children will stutter at some period. Typically it starts between the ages of 2 and 6 as they are learning to speak because oftentimes both their speech and language abilities are not developed enough to express what they want to say.

This is called developmental stuttering, the most common type of stuttering, and will typically last between 3 and 6 months. Boys are more likely to stutter than girls. However, about 75% of children who stutter can outgrow it. For the other 25%, stuttering can become a lifelong communication impairment.

What causes a developmental stutter? Researchers are still studying the exact causes, but there may be several factors at play. There are several possible causes of stuttering during childhood development. They are:

  • Abnormal speech motor skills: The child may have abnormal speech motor control, including around things like timing, sensory coordination, and motor coordination.

  • Family history: The genetic trait may be inherited in the family line.

Neurogenic Stuttering

When a stutter is caused by signal problems between the brain and all the various speech mechanisms in our body, this is called neurogenic stuttering. When the brain is unable to coordinate with the brain regions involved with speaking, there is an inability to speak clearly and fluently. This is typically caused by a stroke or brain injury. This kind of stutter most often will manifest through speech that is slow, has pauses, or repetitive sounds.

Psychogenic Stuttering

Psychogenic stuttering is rare but was once believed to represent all stuttering. Today we know that this condition seems to occur in people who have been through severe emotional trauma or suffer from a psychiatric illness. Oftentimes those with a psychogenic stutter will rapidly repeat the initial sounds in words.

Besides the three kinds of stuttering, it is also possible for speakers who do not stutter to experience the same kind of speech disfluency. A stutter can happen for non-stutterers when they feel nervous or pressured.

Symptoms of Stuttering

Symptoms of this speech disorder may vary throughout the day and in different situations. Here are some common signs and symptoms of stuttering to look out for:

  • Repetitions of a syllable, sound, or word (example: “W-W-W-What”)

  • Difficulty forming the initial sounds of a word, phrase, or sentence

  • Prolonging a word or sounds in a word (example: “SSSend”)

  • Brief pause within a word due to problematic syllables or words. Stopped or blocked speech occurs when the mouth is open but no words are coming out

  • Talking slowly

  • The face or upper body carries tension or tightness when speaking

  • May include movement and facial tics while speaking

  • Adding interjections if the next words are problematic (example: “um” or “like”)

  • Afraid/anxious to talk

  • Being out of breath while talking

  • Difficulty communicating effectively

  • May experience rapid blinking, lip or jaw tremors, head jerks, and/or clenching fists

Those children with severe stuttering will have physical symptoms, including increased tension. They will often try to hide their impairment or talk less. Severe stuttering more often occurs in older children. It can even manifest after the child has only had a mild stutter for months or years. It may even appear out of nowhere with no previous speech problems.

For severe stutterers, there are speech disfluencies in just about every phrase or sentence spoken. Here are some symptoms of advanced cases of stuttering:

  • One-second or longer disfluencies

  • Prolongations of sounds are common

  • Silent blockages are common

  • Eye blinks, eye closing, looking away,

  • Tension around the mouth and face

  • The rising pitch of the voice during repetitions and prolongations

  • “Um,” “uh,” “well” and other interjections are used when a stutter is expected

  • Fear of speaking; will seem anxious or guarded in situations where they must talk

Severe stuttering is likely to persist into adulthood. This is especially the case if the child has already been stuttering for 18 months or more. But do not give up hope; children have been known to recover spontaneously.

If you suspect your child has a chronic stutter, consider visiting your child’s healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

You may notice that the stutter will get worse when the person experiences excitement, fatigue, stress, pressure, or self-consciousness. The stutter will likely come out in situations like public speaking or even talking on the phone with a stranger. But you will notice that the person may speak perfectly when talking to themselves or when singing or speaking in unison with others.

Why Does a Stutter Worsen Under Stress?

If your child suffers from a stutter, it is important to realize that this does not indicate any mental health issues are at play. It is a fact that anxiety does not cause stuttering. However, anxiety and stress can make a stutter worse or activate a stutter that was already there.

You may have noticed that when a person is afraid their stutter will manifest, it makes them stutter even more. And this fear of stuttering can be very detrimental to a child’s ability or desire to socialize, and to have friendships, and can greatly affect the overall quality of life.

The reason why stutters increase with stress is physiologically related. When we’re stressed, this has a negative response on our bodies. Our bodies secrete hormones and our muscles tighten; building up tension in the chest, shoulders, jaw, neck, tongue, or lips. The muscle movements that the brain directs to control speech tense up, which can aggravate the stutter that is already existing there.

This causes a negative feedback loop. The child has a stutter, which causes anxiety, which then causes the stutter to become more pronounced. This cycle can be very frustrating, and you are likely to see your child withdrawing from social events and activities.

Half of the adults who stutter also have social anxiety. Anxiety does not cause a stutter but stutters increase the odds someone will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Having a stutter can make you 6-7 times more likely to have anxiety and 16 to 34 times more likely to be diagnosed with social anxiety.

Not only are children likely to withdraw from social interaction more often, but they are also likely to experience bullying and being isolated by their peers. With more experiences like these that can negatively impact self-esteem, adolescents are likely to withdraw even more, and perhaps carry some of these social behaviors into adulthood.

How to Combat Stuttering When Stressed

There are things you or your child can do to end the negative feedback loop that causes endless cycles of stuttering and anxiety. We recommend trying the following to combat stuttering when stressed:

  • Know the problem: When the person who stutters gets educated on their speech problem, it can make it seem less daunting. Understanding what the stutter is, why it is, and how to overcome it can be half the battle.

  • Speech therapy: It is often best to attack the issue at its core. Luckily, stuttering itself is treatable, which will automatically alleviate the associated anxiety. Get in touch with a certified speech-language pathologist (SLP) to help treat your child’s stutter. A speech therapist can also address any stuttering-related issues, making an easier path to coping with the issue.

  • Electronic fluency devices: An electronic fluency device delays or alters the sound of someone’s voice, creating an echo. These types of devices can also mimic your speech as if you are talking in unison with another person. Both of these ways have proven to improve speech fluency.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help alleviate social anxiety by identifying, neutralizing, and preventing self-defeating thoughts. It is also good for increasing self-esteem. Also, consider family therapy. This can help remove the stigma around the stutter. Each family member will be given their own set of supportive strategies to help deal with the child’s stutter.

  • Relaxation exercises: Learning mindfulness and meditation practices can do wonders for relaxation. Also, learning to breathe deeply with breathing exercises is a great skill to master. One easy exercise to focus on when feeling anxiety is learning to exhale deeply. When we exhale, this is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that helps our bodies relax and calm down. Teach your child this deep exhalation exercise:

    1. Do this technique standing up, sitting down, or lying down.

    2. Before taking a deep breath, make a long thorough exhale in its place. Try to get all of the air out of your lungs, then allow your lungs to take a natural breath and inhale on their own.

    3. Then keep breathing, but make the exhale longer than the inhale. You can start by inhaling for four seconds, then exhaling for six.

    4. Keep doing this for 2 to 5 minutes, then realize how much more relaxed you are.

  • Support groups: When you or your child are around other people who stutter, it can make it much less isolating. The problem will then seem less important, which will make it easier to deal with in the future. Find events that include children with similar speech problems.

  • Create a relaxed environment: A person who stutters should have a comfort zone where they can relax around communication. If you are the child of the stutterer, be sure to never talk over him or her, be impatient when they are stuttering, or correct their speech. Instead, listen attentively so he or she does not feel that you are bored or annoyed.

  • Practice communication: When someone avoids social settings, this can make the anxiety worse. Instead, actively seek out new opportunities to practice communication in a social situation through exposure therapy. The more practice, the easier and easier it will be. And much less terrifying. Also, be sure to set aside some quality time to talk to your child and allow him or her the opportunity to have a relaxed conversation without having to feel anxious. Bring up easy, fun topics that will interest your child, rather than difficult ones. Speak slowly, and your child will more than likely follow suit.

  • Provide emotional support: You do not want your child to feel like a burden. Encourage him or her to talk about their feelings regarding stuttering. Knowing they have a listening ear will help them feel supported and less likely to hide their feelings, which can worsen their anxiety. Be positive as you listen, praising your child when you notice any small progress along the way.

Ease the Anxiety that Comes With Stuttering

Whether it be a developmental stutter, neurogenic, or psychogenic, having a stutter can cause a child to feel isolated from their peers. You must get professional help to help your child cope with their speech impairment. There are ways to learn to cope with both the stutter and the anxiety that can come with it.

Although the stutter may not be curable, the anxiety can be dealt with. The earlier, the better. For more information on stuttering, or to get involved with our programs, contact us for more information here at the RiteCare Childhood Language Centers of California.


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