This paper describes stuttering therapy based on modern psychology principles of REBT, the grandfather of all the Cognitive Behavior Therapies. It describes the techniques I use with my clients who have audible and inaudible blocks, part-word repetitions, and physical struggle (e.g., tension); communication avoidances characterized by insertion of pauses, substitution for certain words and sounds and using circumlocutions and fillers. They also have anticipatory anxiety, shame, guilt, and anger and unhelpful beliefs and self-talk that prevent them from pursuing suitable mates or satisfying careers.
The preferred outcome of REBTS is recovery from stuttering. Recovery means that the client:
- No longer feels shame, fear, anticipatory anxiety, anger, and other unhealthy emotions about stuttering.
- May well have some disfluencies but generally the speech is effortless and forward moving.
- The outcome is operational fluency: natural sounding speech with easy bounces that are reminiscent of how the client talked before he started to stutter. The client has no need and does not monitor his speech.
- Understands that he is a complex person with many character traits and knows that he is not defined by his stutter.
- Can acknowledge to all people that in the future, he may occasionally stutter.
- Lives life to the fullest pursuing any career that he chooses and seeks romantic and social relationships that are to his liking.
Description of the Preferred REBTS Steps
The preferred sequence of steps—together with a short explanation—is given below. The effectiveness of REBT has been established by meta-studies. The one that is frequently quoted is by David and associates (David, D., et al, 2005).
Step 1: Establish a Good Therapeutic Relationship
The therapist strives for a good, transparent therapeutic relationship that culminates in the client being able to become his own therapist.
Step 2: REBT Formulation of Stuttering
Most clients talk fluently when alone but when they encounter an authority figure they stutter. In situation #1 (when there is no stress) a PWS does not stutter, but in situation #2 (when there is stress) he does stutter.
Suppose a PWS is in a type #2 situation where he has to attend a daily status meetings in his boss’s conference room in presence of his co-workers and executives that are higher up in the company. Here are the steps that the PWS undergoes:
- The sequence of events starts with the computer alarm that signals to the PWS that he needs to go and present his status.
- PWS’s conscious and subconscious mind becomes aware that he will have to talk.(A)
- This awareness evokes conscious and subconscious beliefs such as “It would be awful if I stuttered”, “I should not stutter!”, etc.(B)
- These beliefs in turn trigger a general anticipatory anxiety, self-deprecation, and possibly other unhealthy emotions such as shame, feeling of urgency, feeling of uncertainty, etc. (Ce)
- …later in the actual meeting when the PWS is forming sentences of what to say (A) a certain forthcoming sound may signal probable stutter and the anticipatory anxiety (Ce) concerning a sound or a word on which the PWS has a history of stuttering is raised.
- When the time comes to say this word or sound the PWS uses various avoidance techniques and/or has a block or tense stutter. (Cb)
When I explain these steps to the client at first he concludes that the situation #2 caused the PWS to go into the above chain reaction terminating in loss of control, and tense, struggling stutter. This is where I explain emphatically that the Activating Situation (A) did not directly cause stuttering. The following chain of events occurs: A triggers the Beliefs (B) (“It would be awful if I stuttered”, “I should not stutter!”) and the combination evokes the Consequent Emotions (Ce) resulting in the Consequent Behavior (Cb) the loss of control and tense, struggling stutter. This can be expressed by the following formula:
A x B => Ce => Cb
Where the italicized phrase in step number 2 and first italicized phrase in 5 correspond to A, the italicized phrases in step number 3 corresponds to B, the last italicized phrase in step 5 and the italicized phrases in step 4 correspond to Ce, and the italicized phrase in step 6 correspond to Cb.
Now let us apply the formula #1 to a PWS when he is talking to himself:
A=Talking to oneself x B=I don’t care if I stutter=>Ce= Calm=> Cb =Relaxed Speech
Step 3: The Focus of Therapy
I explain that the focus of REBTS is to substitute the irrational Beliefs in Step 2 with rational belief such as “Although I might stutter, I am making good progress on my project” and “The boss only cares more about the schedule on the project, than my stuttering”. This might well lead to a relaxed emotional state and fairly fluent speech. Therefore, the focus of REBTS is on changing beliefs about the situation so that the beliefs that cause a PWS to stutter are replaced by beliefs that help him to communicate better. One of the methods to change beliefs is called disputing. In this method we the beliefs are subjected to three questions that mirror the scientific method:
- Is there evidence to support this belief?
- Is this belief logical?
- Does this belief help me to get my goals?
After some hard thinking neither of the above beliefs i) “It would be awful if I stuttered”, ii) “I should not stutter!” pass the gauntlet of these questions. One can readily dismiss both of them as being irrational. There is no evidence to support these beliefs. The beliefs are not logical. And, above all, neither of the beliefs help with achieving the goal recovering from stuttering.
Step 4: Explain What Rational Thinking Is
In order to recover from stuttering using REBT, I teach my clients what REBT considers rational or helpful. REBT research has concluded for a human to be non-neurotic he best not hold extreme absolutistic rigid beliefs. It is saner to be somewhat flexible when pursuing one’s goals.
Step 5: Why We As Humans Tend To Think Irrationally
I tell my clients that we humans are born with healthy strong desires to belong to a group, communicate with members of this group, master various skills, avoid distress, and be in a good emotional state. Unfortunately, we also have the inborn tendency to take these healthy desires and turn them into destructive rigid demands and needs.
Step 6: What Magic Tool Does REBT Gives You To Solve Your Emotional Problems
In REBTS my role is to convince the client that the beliefs that we absolutely must have what we want only serve to raise anxiety, shame, guilt and feelings of urgency. Besides irrational ideas that start with musts there are irrational ideas based on evaluation that some situations are awful, unbearable, that self-deprecation and condemnation and damnation are justified and all or nothing thinking is valid. I teach the client how to detect and dispute these pernicious beliefs and, thus, provide him with an almost magical tool of turning a stuttering producing belief into a stuttering reducing belief.
Step 7: Using REBT To Facilitate Stuttering Homework Assignments
The client by this time understands that he has a very powerful tool that he can use to proceed in stuttering therapy.
Step 8: Operational Description of Stuttering
Operational definition of stuttering provides means for measuring and focusing on reducing stuttering. Operationally stuttering consists of distorted cognitive/thinking habits (e.g. must statements), unhealthy emoting habits (e.g. anxiety), habits of avoiding (e.g. substituting words) and habits of inappropriate tensing and forcing. REBTS provides means to measure these habits and focus on reducing them.
Step 9: Acknowledging Stuttering
In preparation of sending out a client to desensitize himself he first is encouraged to acknowledge his stuttering. Then REBTS builds up his tolerance for discomfort and frustration. The success of the assignment is measured by whether they carry out the assignment and their emotional reaction while carrying out this assignment.
Step 10: Conquering Shame and Fear
I have my clients study and discuss Chapter 6 of my book to conquer shame and fear. With proper guidance the clients can change their feelings by changing their thinking. Anti-shame homework exercises are assigned to solidify their anti-shame and anti-fear attitudes.
Step 11: Desensitization
The classically conditioned fears that are “stored” in limbic system, especially the amygdala, are reduced by direct exposure to the feared stimuli, which in case of stuttering are speaking situations that involve authority figures. Many methods are chosen from REBT, the main one being homework that exaggerates his stuttering with the additional instruction to observe that nothing catastrophic happens to him.
Step 12: Freedom From Irrational Beliefs
Chapter 7 in my book is used as guide to eliminate common irrational beliefs that prevent the client from doing the required homework efficiently.
Step 13: Acceptance of Self With or Without Stuttering
To teach the client to accept himself unconditionally I use my chapter 8 as a guide. I teach each of my clients that since we are human we are all imperfect; we all have our faults and flaws. We can work on self-improvement until cows the come home, but we will never be perfect. However, we are all lucky since there is no, nor ever can be, an absolute standard to measure human worth. Thus, we who stutter and other people with their own issues are no more and no less important or worthy than anyone else.
Step 15: Identification
I like to record my clients, with their permission, of course. Then we can discuss the various extra baggage such as avoidances, secondary stuttering, and forced, tense speech. Usually awareness is enough to inspire the client to drop many of these habits.
Step 16: Avoidances
As a consequence of understanding that avoidances sabotage long range recovery and that perfection in speech is not necessary, the client successfully eliminates his avoidances.
Step 17: Learning Easy Bounces
Easy bounces are introduced and used in voluntary stuttering, helping the stuttering to become forward moving, cancelling, and pre-empting hard blocks. All the speech management exercises are wrapped in the REBT context. It is really important to understand the speech management exercises are mainly used to change the emotions and beliefs — not to make the vocalization easier or smoother.
Step 18: Motivation
Motivation to continue therapy often depends on the ability to demonstrate to the client that progress is being made. Video recording can show progress with respect to severity of blocks, eliminating secondary behaviors, avoidances, and tenseness during stutters. The important changes in cognition can be assessed by periodically reviewing journal entries.
Step 19: Maintenance
The therapy usually ends when the client has significantly reduced the severity of his stuttering and has accepted stuttering as part of himself. This sounds paradoxical, but as Joseph Sheehan said, “Stuttering is what we do in order to avoid stuttering.” If the client truly focuses on his attitudes, emotions, and beliefs instead of chasing the witch goddess of fluency, he will stop obsessing about his speech and start living his life to the fullest. As he firms up his rational attitudes toward himself and his stuttering the disruptive stuttering patterns melt away. At termination the client is ready to maintain his own recovery.
I hope that I have effectively communicated the main points of the REBTS therapy process. My experience with clients’ and my own stuttering has convinced me that recovery from stuttering is not only possible but very likely, if the therapy process is concentrated on changing beliefs, attitudes and emotions.
David D. et al. (2005). A Synopsis of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy: Fundamental and Applied Research. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 2005, vol. 23
Neiders, G. & Ross, W. (2013). From Stuttering to Fluency: Manage Your Emotions and Live More Fully. Neiders Press, Seattle, WA.
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