Being eloquent and commanding in the way we speak is highly desirable and an incredibly useful life skill. The ability to command an audience, to be heard and to sound confident and intelligent is something that all of us aspire to.
Conversely though, for those of us who are prone to stuttering, this can actually be a cause of a lot of distress, embarrassment and yes even fear. In fact even for those of us who aren’t that prone to stuttering, this can still be a big fear. All of us have at some point or other decided we want to say something, but then worried as we were about to that we might stutter when we opened our mouths and perhaps even opted not to speak at all as a result. When public speaking or addressing a large audience this tends to become even more acute. This is normal then to a degree, but for some this can escalate out of control and out of all proportion to the extent that it becomes a full-blown phobia called ‘psellismophobia’ (try saying that five times quickly…). Here we will look at the condition, how it comes about, and how to address it.
Causes of Psellismophobia
The irony of a fear of stuttering is of course unfortunately that being afraid of stuttering is almost always likely to cause stuttering. As you become nervous you attempt to speak more quickly, and your words can ‘tumble’ over each other. At the same time if you are very nervous this can affect your motor control around your mouth and you can also find that your thoughts race making it hard for your mouth to ‘keep up’ with sounding the words. Thus psellismophobia quickly becomes a self perpetuating vicious cycle. Here, the more you worry about stuttering, the more you stutter and the more you worry.
There are various causes of psellismophobia. The most common is that the individual at some point suffered from a speech impediment that they have since struggled to get over psychologically. It is actually highly common for children between the ages of two and five to develop stuttering and this will affect some more than others. Other common causes though are particular scarring incidents involving stuttering where someone has felt they’ve embarrassed themselves or made a fool of themselves through stuttering. Say you were to attempt public speaking for instance and you were to ‘choke’ then this could leave you too afraid to try doing so again and could affect your ability to talk normally in more relaxed situations as well. Finally injury or abnormality around the mouth and throat might also indirectly lead to a phobia of stuttering.
Symptoms of Psellismophobia
No one wants to stutter and a ‘normal’ level of concern is not indicative of psellismophobia. However if you find that the fear is disproportionate and crippling to the point where you can no longer function ordinarily in society, then this is a full blown phobia.
The symptoms may not be confined to fear. Someone who suffers with psellismophobia will likely feel a range of physical changes in their body and particularly in their mouth and throat making it hard to talk. Any phobia is likely to cause an increased heart rate, racing thoughts, shaking, cold sweat, panic attacks and rapid breathing. However in cases of psellismophobia this is also likely to be accompanied by other symptoms such as dryness in the mouth, lack of motor control around the tongue and mouth, coughing and even struggling to breathe.
There are various treatment options for psellismophobia. Generally these will involve therapy or the use of anti-anxiety medication. Anti-anxiety drugs can help you to bring the stuttering under control and to feel more relaxed in the short term. However if you wish to treat the problem more permanently then you will require therapy in order to address the causes and to get to the root of the problem.
The best form of therapy for phobias is arguably ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’. This is a form of therapy that views the brain as programmable in much the same way that a computer is programmable, and that combines this view with ‘behavioral’ theories made popular by such researchers as Pavlov.
The ideas in cognitive behavioral therapy basically revolve around looking at the thought processes that we have that lead to negative behaviors and beliefs. These unhealthy thought processes might take the form of ruminations prior to speaking for instance where the sufferer constantly thinks things such as ‘what happens if I stutter?’, or ‘I always stutter when I talk in front of people’. This then is what draws their mind to the problem they have and what triggers the fear response. At the same time these thoughts are then what make it difficult for us to focus on our speaking and what thereby cause the stuttering.
The aim then here is to change these thought processes to ones that will be more conducive to speaking in public confidently and to ones that will help you to stay calm. This is called ‘cognitive restructuring’ and basically means changing the way you think about something in order to alter your perception of it and to reduce a problem.
Meanwhile, cognitive behavioral therapy also looks at the behavioral aspect of our psychology – how our experiences shape our expectation and reinforce connections in our mind. All forms of therapy will then also teach coping methods designed to help us to bring our response back under our own control and to a less excitable state.
Some Things to Try
If you struggle with psellismophobia then you should make sure that you seek professional help in order to get the best treatment and the best chance of recovery. However that’s not to say that you can’t try some strategies yourself in order to start combating the problem right now. Here are some suggestions.
Note Your Thoughts: Listen to the contents of your thoughts and your ruminations and try to identify those thoughts that could be damaging to your confidence in speaking. For example if you find yourself constantly thinking things like ‘I’m going to choke’ then try to replace this with thoughts such as ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s not flawless’, or ‘these people are all friends’. This is what is called ‘mindfulness’ in CBT.
Positive Affirmations: If you find yourself forgetting to think these things, then you can always use positive affirmations in order to change your habits. Positive affirmations are positive thoughts and statements that we repeat consciously in order to improve our confidence such as those mentioned above, or more empowering statements such as ‘I am a confident and effective speaker’. The idea behind these is that as you repeat them often enough, they gradually become habitual to the point where you end up ‘defaulting’ to these kinds of thoughts rather than the negative ones. This way you eventually find that you naturally think positive thoughts which of course is very conducive to being a confident speaker and far better than the alternative. A great strategy is to use post-it notes and other notes written with washable marker around your environment in order to remind yourself of these statements.
Control Your Breathing: When you start to panic with regards to speaking your body will produce more adrenaline and that will result in the ‘fight or flight’ response wherein your heart rate increases and you find yourself shaking and sweating. One way to combat this is to try and consciously calm yourself. Practice listening to your breathing and taking slow and deep breaths and you will find that this helps to slow your heart rate back down. CBT professionals can help you to do this by using ‘biofeedback’ in which you have your heart rate monitored and then practice seeing if you can bring the rate back down.
Challenge Your Expectations: If you avoid speaking up when you’re in company due to your phobia then you will find that this ends up reinforcing your fear – you are acting as someone who can’t speak in public and you are giving yourself no reason to believe that you can. Instead of continuing with this behavior then, try challenging your beliefs by speaking up whenever possible. This way you will get better at speaking in public, but more importantly you will learn that there is nothing to be afraid of. A great way to practice is to take yourself to public speaking classes, or drama classes, where you are required to speak in front of an audience and to take center stage – but you should also practice doing it in everyday life.
In fact, you shouldn’t only speak up in public wherever possible, you should also find opportunities to purposely fail. The best thing you can do is to learn that if you choke and can’t get your words out – then no one is going to punish you. Next time you are speaking in front of a group of people, let yourself stutter and stop and you will find that they are actually surprisingly understanding and that there are no negative repercussions. Once you’ve done this you will feel a lot more calm, because you’ll realize that there really isn’t anything to fear.
Avoid Stimulants: Stimulants are substances such as caffeine (found in tea and coffee) that increase our heart rate and our metabolism. These should be avoided by anyone suffering from any kind of anxiety disorder as they worsen many of the symptoms associated with phobias and contribute to anxiety.