Stress and Stuttering

This is a special message to the person who stutters. It expresses our orientation to your problem.

When individuals are under stress they get tense. The tension can be measured. Electrodes can be attached to the muscles and sent to an appropriate measuring instrument. When this has been done in the past, it has been observed that some people get more tense than others and that everyone seems to have a spot on the body where they focus their tension. This spot is called the Target Area. People are born with it, and sometimes it is inherited.

The five most common Target Areas for people are the muscles of the shoulder girdle, the abdominal wall, the face, the hands, and the lower back. Most people, under conditions of stress, tend to focus tension at one of these five areas. But in addition to these, there are a group of other Targets, affecting small percentages of people. One of these, affecting two and a half percent of the people in the world, are the muscles in and around the vocal cords.

It is our contention that all people who stutter come from this two and a half percent subpopulation. In other words, people who stutter are born with a Target Area at their vocal cords; people who stutter are born with the tendency to get "choked up" when under conditions of stress.

And when they are young, usually between the ages of two and eight, and under some condition of stress (like having a new baby brother born, starting school, parents getting a divorce, moving to a new neighborhood, having to rush to get a word in edgewise, learning at age two to speak their language at the rates with which they hear their parents speaking that language) - whatever the stress is, is not too important, but what is important is that on a particular day there be enough stress present, focusing enough tension at the cords, that as they begin to speak their vocal cords lock.

When this happens they can't speak and so they begin to struggle to release the lock. The struggle becomes a habit and it's what the world sees and hears and calls stuttering. So stuttering is learned extricatory struggle behavior, learned in childhood to release an individual from an inborn, often inherited, tendency to lock the cords when under conditions of stress.

As they get older the original stresses disappear. They are replaced with new stresses. There are three particular stresses that people who stutter suffer from: feared sounds, feared words, and feared speaking situations - and now, in response to these stresses, they lock their vocal cords and fire off their stutter reflex. Or, instead of letting that happen, they learn to substitute easy-to-say words for difficult ones, or learn to use starters to get their vocal cords vibrating, or remain silent, or learn simply to avoid difficult speaking situations altogether.

Often they become so adroit at these avoidance behaviors that many people do not know they have a problem. They become "closet stutterers." But most of the time they display a combination of both avoidance and struggle.