Does anxiety cause stuttering?

No.

So why do people who stutter often feel anxious? 

Here’s what some of the latest research tells us:

1. Speech is fundamental to both:

  • daily functioning, e.g. making an appointment on the phone, ordering dinner at a restaurant or participating in a work meeting; and
  • starting and maintaining relationships, e.g. meeting new people, asking someone out on a date, participating in team building exercises at work, simply chatting with friends at a BBQ, colleagues by the water cooler and acquaintances at networking or community events (Messenger et al., 2004).

2. (Somewhat obviously) many people who stutter face considerable difficulties when trying to speak (Packman et al. 2000).

3. Many people, on hearing someone stutter, react negatively to it. It can be hard not to – even pre-schoolers have been observed reacting negatively to peers who stutter (Langevion et al., 2009). This negative feedback can continue for years and decades – across a person’s lifespan. For example, people who stutter can experience:

  • listeners looking away, embarrassed, interrupting them, trying to finish their sentences for them, and straight out shunning;
  • bullying and teasing at school and in the workplace;
  • social isolation and rejection;
  • relationship problems;
  • educational and occupational underachievement, e.g.  some people who stutter take on low paying, lowly-skilled jobs well below their aptitude levels simply so they can avoid situations requiring them to speak; and
  • fear of public speaking and speaking in social situations (e.g. Menzies & Onslow, 2011).

Given all these negative experiences, sometimes over very long periods of time, it’s not surprising that some people who stutter feel anxious!

So how does anxiety affect stuttering?

We know that an anxiety can exacerbate stuttering severity. From a stuttering management perspective, we also now know that untreated social anxiety and other mental illnesses can increase the risk of relapse for people who’ve been successfully treated with an evidence-based speech restructuring treatment like the Camperdown Program (e.g. Iverach et al., 2009).

Is help for social anxiety available?

Yes.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective psychological interventions available for treating social anxiety. In 2008, a team at the University of Sydney published the results of a randomised controlled trial which showed that CBT for anxiety was associated with significant reductions in anxiety, even a year after treatment. Interestingly, CBT did not of itself reduce stuttering severity (Menzies et al., 2008), another indicator that stuttering is not caused by anxiety.

For busy people – or people who don’t want to see a clinical psychologist face-to-face – an online program for the treatment of social anxiety among adults who stutter has been developed (Helgadottir et al., 2009). The early results of this project has been promising and Associate Professor Ross Menzies and his team are currently conducting a randomised controlled trial on the program.

So watch this space.

If you would like more information about stuttering and anxiety, please contact us.

Principal source: Iverach et al. (2011). Anxiety and Stuttering: Continuing to Explore a Complex Relationship. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 20, 221-232.

Image: http://tinyurl.com/mfybms7

My Online Stuttering Clinic is an online therapy clinic for children and adults who stutter. We offer online stuttering assessment and therapy via video conferencing technology. My Online Stuttering Clinic is run by David Kinnane, a speech-language pathologist with post-graduate training in the Lidcombe and Camperdown Programs for stuttering.

David holds a Master of Speech Language Pathology from the University of Sydney, where he was a Dean’s Scholar. David is a Practising Member of Speech Pathology Australia and a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist (CPSP).

David also owns and manages Banter Speech & Language, a ‘bricks and mortar’ independent speech pathology clinic for adults and children in Sydney, Australia.

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