|About the Authors: Hazel Percy is married and lives with her family in the UK. She started stuttering around the age of 5 and for many years suffered from a severe and overt stuttering problem, which restricted her life in many ways. Although she currently works part-time in a care home, her passion is public speaking. In 2005 she achieved the LAMDA Bronze Award in Public Speaking and is currently a speaker for the Women’s Institute. She is also a member of a local Toastmasters club.
If you are a person who stutters (PWS), have you ever wondered why you are sometimes (or perhaps always) more fluent when speaking alone, than when speaking to other people? Or why you only stutter in certain situations? Being a relatively severe and overt PWS when speaking to anyone (and for almost 50 years), this puzzled and frustrated me so much! I would often ask myself the question: How can I transfer the easy and effortless way in which I speak when alone, into situations where I am speaking to other people?
During my teens, twenties, thirties and forties, I tried various approaches to help me to speak with greater ease. Techniques included nodding my head with every syllable, breathing in an abnormal way, voluntary stuttering; as well as changing the beliefs and perceptions which I held about myself and my listeners, to be more positive. I had varying degrees of success but none of the methods which I tried and used, led me to the consistent, natural, effortless speech which I experienced when alone. What was going on? What was the answer? Was there an answer at all? Was there a key (or keys) which would unlock the door of this seemingly inescapable prison, so that I could truly speak my mind in an easy and effortless way?
Understanding my mind
In my late thirties and forties, I read several autobiographies written by people who had largely overcome their own stuttering. These included John Harrison’s ‘Redefining Stuttering: What the struggle to speak is really all about’ and Ruth Mead’s ‘Speech is a River’. I also read Barbara Dahm’s book; ‘Freeing Your Inner Fluency: A Dramatically Different Outlook on Stuttering’ and had several therapy sessions with her. In addition I made many observations myself of what I was doing in my mind when I was fluent; and what I was doing differently when I stuttered. It soon became very obvious to me that stuttering was not just ‘something which was happening to me, outside my control’ – even though at first glance, it could very easily seem that way. I came to realise that I was inadvertently creating the blocks and stutters every time, by what I was subconsciously and habitually choosing to focus on in my mind before and during the speaking process; namely, the words which I was about to say and the fear of stuttering on them. In effect, I was subconsciously trying to ‘not stutter’ – and triggering the opposite behaviour to that which I desired, every time!
Over many years, I had developed an ingrained habit of usually knowing beforehand what words I wanted to say before saying them. I often visualized the words in my mind and believed that certain sounds or words were difficult to say (which were most of them!). I would try so hard to say those words and yet the result was often block after block; struggle after struggle. Fear of stuttering was rampant in my mind and I had a high expectation that whenever I opened my mouth to speak to any person, I would stutter – if I wasn’t using any form of physical technique to control my speech.
In addition, I had so many memories of stuttering in the presence of people (when trying to speak naturally fluently), that my brain was constantly referencing them if I went to speak to another person, without the aid of my trusted, yet tiring, breathing technique. Therefore, whenever I went to speak without ‘physical controls’ to assist me, my automatic mind/body reaction was to re-enact my very well learned and habituated response of planning and fearing words, leading to repeatedly blocking and stuttering. On the other hand, if I occasionally spoke without any forethought about words, my speech would flow. Why? I had not given my mind any time to plan or fear what I was about to say. In effect, I was momentarily speaking as a non-PWS; spontaneously – simply focussing on my ideas and not the specific words which my brain would choose automatically for me, as I was speaking. On these occasions, I was simply ‘thinking aloud’. However, understanding the problem was one thing. Solving it was an entirely different matter! Nonetheless, I was determined to find a way; to find a key which would unlock the door to give me the ability to effortlessly speak my mind when in the presence of others.
Changing my mind
So, if intensely focussing on words; the planning of and fearing saying them were key triggers for my stuttering, how could I reverse this ingrained and habituated response? How could I change my focus and give up the planning and fearing of stuttering on the next word? What was the key?
Earlier this year, a book was brought to my attention, written by Lee G Lovett: ‘Stuttering & Anxiety Self-Cures: What 100+ PWS Taught Me’. Lee is someone who stopped stuttering around forty years ago, after he developed methods which enabled him to take control of his mind enough to prevent creating blocks and stutters and therefore, to prevent creating new stuttering memories. At first, many of the methods described in his book seemed to conflict with much of what I had been taught about stuttering and how to reduce it. However, I kept an open mind and continued to read on. I recognised that everything that I had tried so far, had not given me the outcome that I desired; namely, to consistently and effortlessly speak my mind. Lee was also offering free Skype coaching. So several weeks ago, I decided to accept his offer and to give his methods my best effort. I knew that if I didn’t, I would only live to regret it. I also watched many of his live coaching sessions on Twitch TV’s ‘Game of Tongues’, where he helps people who have stuttering and/or speech anxiety related issues. From what I saw, his approach for addressing stuttering made a lot of sense to me and confirmed my already held belief in neuroplasticity; our brain’s ability to change itself.
At first, ‘changing my mind’ seemed a daunting task. I had so many stuttering memories and very few fluency memories stored in my brain. After all, for the best part of eighteen years, I had been heavily reliant on a physical technique to control my speech and therefore, most of the ‘fluency’ I had experienced had sounded and felt artificial and unnatural. Even so, I was very grateful for the relief that technique had given me. Therefore, to help counteract my distinct lack of natural fluency memories, I started reading aloud fluently to myself, daily, for one hour – putting in as much feeling, expression and animation as I could. This had two purposes: 1) To help me to get used to focussing on the message rather than on specific words and 2) to increase fluency memories which my mind could reference in the future, when in speaking situations. I also started reading aloud or talking to myself at every opportunity throughout the day when I was alone (even if just very quietly); for example, whilst driving or walking. By doing this, I was (and still am) building up even more fluency memories in my mind.
As well as this, I started giving myself twice daily (morning and evening), Auto Suggestion Treatments for around 15 minutes each (plus occasional extras in my free time, when alone). Simply put, these are positive statements/affirmations about speaking, which I speak out loud to myself. As I do so, I visualise myself achieving the suggestion which I want my conscious and subconscious mind to accept and believe; for our thoughts, feelings and beliefs dictate our behaviour. I also recorded my auto suggestions and started to play them softly as I slept, so that my subconscious mind could absorb them, without my conscious mind’s interference.
In addition, I started practising what Lee calls ‘Crutches’ on a daily basis; both alone and when speaking to people. These are simply methods for avoiding imminent blocks and stutters, so that more and more fluency is heard and recorded by my mind and less and less stuttering. For example, speaking outside of my normal voice register e.g. a little quieter or louder than usual and linking my words together in short phrases (with no gaps between syllables). As a result, I started to experience a significant increase in effortless and spontaneous speech, as I began the process of consciously refusing to let myself block and stutter. I was more and more ‘standing up’ to that part of my brain which was so well-trained in automatically planning and fearing words and therefore, was gradually refraining from activating the neural network that produced the struggled speech. Spontaneous, fluent speech was gradually increasing and planned, stuttered speech was gradually decreasing in my everyday life – and at a significant rate! Consequently, my brain was (and still is) continuing to build up more fluency than stuttering memories, thereby reducing the anticipation and expectation of stuttering. So this process continues, as I do my daily mind training exercises.
It is still early days but as I continue to apply myself and stay disciplined, I believe that the time will come when I will only very rarely think about stuttering. I don’t know how long it will take for me to reach that point. However, I do know that as the neural network in my brain for fluency becomes stronger and larger (through increased use) than the one for stuttering (which is becoming less active and therefore, gradually weaker), my mind will slowly stop anticipating stuttering and may even forget about it altogether! Eventually, I will simply speak spontaneously; focussing solely on my ideas – leaving any residual fear of stuttering dormant at the back of my mind, most of the time. If I should get an occasional stutter thought or fear in the long-term, I know that I will always have ways to counteract it, to prevent a relapse.
Speak your mind
So, in conclusion, if you are a PWS, I’d like you to consider these questions: Can you easily speak your mind? If not, are you looking for a way which can help you achieve this goal? If so, perhaps you might like to explore the path which I am following. I have finally found keys which are opening the door of what once seemed an inescapable prison. I hope that if needed, you too will find such keys, so that like me, you can more easily ‘Speak your Mind!’
Barbara Dahm: ‘Freeing Your Inner Fluency: A Dramatically Different Outlook on Stuttering’
John C Harrison: ‘REDEFINING STUTTERING – What the struggle to speak is really all about’
Lee G Lovett: ‘Stuttering & Anxiety Self-Cures: What 100+ PWS Taught Me’
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