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Mindfulness and Stuttering.
Most of us do not stutter mindfully.
When we are caught in a moment of stuttering, we hide out, escape within ourselves.
What if I told you that getting to know what you do while you stutter could help you manage stuttering more effectively?
In this post, I will draw parallels between mindfulness and stuttering therapy and suggest how principles of this ancient practice could help you change how you stutter.
I will also outline preliminary research about a stuttering therapy approach that explicitly incorporates mindfulness training.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention, in the present moment, to things we usually disregard (Kabot-Zinn, 2009).
It is paying attention to the present moment, now. And now. And now.
It is knowing what you are doing while doing it, as opposed to living on autopilot.
In mindfulness, our attention is usually focused on one thing; this single-pointedness helps anchor us to the present (Brockelhurst.)
This focused awareness isn’t meant to cure life’s problems or even to make us calm. Instead, it helps us see problems clearly (Kabot-Zinn, 2009).
Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways.
Formal mediation may involve focusing on the breath or on sensations in the body as a means of anchoring us to the present. When our mind wanders, we gently return our attention to the breath or body sensations.
The act of returning to the breath is part of the experience and not considered a mark of failure.
In fact, observing our wandering mind is considered a mindful moment, as we are simply observing another occurrence happening right now and then renewing our focus.
Informal mindfulness practice is also possible. Anything can be done mindfully. You can give your full attention to washing dishes, driving, having a conversation, the process of showering, anything!
Mindfulness and Stuttering
As mentioned earlier, although we stutter every day, we may have no idea what we really do when we stutter.
I’m of the belief that it’s near impossible to change how we respond to moments of stuttering and our attitudes about stuttering unless we know what we currently do when we stutter.
And we can’t know what we do while we stutter unless we actively monitor what we do.
My opinion is not a novel one.
In fact, a pioneer in the field of stuttering and speech language pathology, Charles Van Riper advocated for a prolonged stage of self-monitoring at the start of stuttering therapy (Manning & Dilollo, 2017; Brockelhurst).
In this way, principles of mindfulness can be applied to stuttering therapy without any mention of the term mindfulness at all.
In the sections that follow, I’ll outline the seven main pillars of mindfulness, as described by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Full Catastrophe Living(2009).
I’ll show how, without much variation, these pillars could also be principles of stuttering therapy:
Beginner’s mind invites us to enter each experience as if for the first time.
This is easier said than done:
We naturally allow memories and beliefs about similar situations to impact how we react to the present moment.
But every moment is unique.
By responding to this moment without allowing what we know to affect how we act, we can respond as is truly appropriate to the current situation.
I used to blink heavily and tap my fingers during moments of stuttering. And I still do sometimes.
I was reacting to each moment of stuttering in a habitual way, using what are called secondary behaviors.
But once I started monitoring my stuttering, observing it, becoming aware of it, I recognized that I reacted to each moment in the exact same, knee-jerk manner.
And this knee-jerk reaction was not very effective.
I was fighting and struggling with stuttering. And loosing sorely.
After observing my stuttering for a while, I realized that, although I didn’t know when I stuttered, I had a lot of say about how I stuttered (Sheehan, 2002).
Although I had no say as to when my stutter would occur, the habitual secondary behaviors – the blinking and tapping – didn’t have to happen.
Once I gave up these habitual escape behaviors, I could sit in and stutter through each moment of stuttering and respond to each moment individually.
The only goal of meditation is to be yourself; and, ironically, you already are yourself!
In this way, mindfulness is a call to try less, to be more (Kabat-Zinn, 2009). The act of striving implies that right now, things aren’t ok, that we want to be somewhere else, where things are better.
This non-striving is also key in stuttering therapy:
We know that the more we strive to be fluent and push words out fluently, the more we block on these words.
As in mindfulness practice, the less we try to be fluent, the less tense our stuttering patterns are.
Put simply, mindfulness is about letting go: letting go of judgments, our habitual actions, thoughts of the past and future.
In stuttering therapy, we let go of our hope that fluency will spontaneously occur, and, instead, accept our stuttering.
Instead of trying to push words out and, as a result, blocking on them, or engaging in distracting secondary behaviors, we let go of our perceived control of stuttering and allow stuttering to happen.
I feel like I’m ending each section with the same conclusion. Catching the theme here?
Trust yourself / Patience
In mindfulness practice, honoring your intuition and feelings is important, as is taking responsibility for being yourself
We try so hard to struggle out of moments of stuttering, without trusting that our body can get through these moments itself.
Trusting that our body can get through the moment – by stuttering through it – is vital.
A huge aspect of stuttering therapy is allowing ourselves to stay in a moment of stuttering as long as we need to, to resist the time pressure that is whispering to us that we need to get on with it.
And this requires patience!
Mindfulness invites us to see things as they really are. And this requires acceptance.
We don’t have to waste energy denying or resisting (Kabat-Zinn, 2009) stuttering, forcing out words in an effort to be fluent and creating tension.
We can accept our stuttering instead.
But that doesn’t mean you have to like how things are or that you have to be complacent or that you have to resign yourself to tolerating your current situation (Kabat-Zinn, 2009).
Acceptance simply comes from seeing things as they are.
And this sets the stage for change.
Another pioneer in the field of stuttering, Joseph Sheehan, described stuttering as a disorder caused by a role conflict (Manning & Dillolo, 2017).
The person who stutters tries to take on the role of a fluent person and wants to reject the role of a stutterer (Sheehan 2002).
The stutterer is conflicted.
On the one hand, he wants to express himself, but on the other, he is fearful of stuttering.
The fear is caused not only by shame and hatred of stuttering, but also by the exhaustion felt playing the phony role of a fluent person (Sheehan, 2002).
By accepting the role of a person who stutters, much of the fear that fuels stuttering vanishes.
A huge aspect of acceptance is non-judgement.
We judge nearly every aspect of life as good or bad (Kabat-Zinn, 2009). In mindfulness practice, we are simply aware of and accept what is, without qualification.
I recently read a thought-provoking article about the concept of neurodiversity and stuttering (Constantino, 2018).
The repetitions and prolongations in our speech are not intrinsically good or bad, advocates of this movement argue. They are just another aspect of us, like the color of our hair (Constantino, 2018).
When we monitor our stuttering, we may have some judgements at first.
I remember becoming upset on multiple occasions as I learned, little by little, how distracting my secondary behaviors were.
In fact, my heavy blinking was much more distracting than any repetitions or prolongations would have been.
But after I had openly stuttered for a while, I begin to become desensitized to my stuttering. My emotional reaction to it decreased and my judgement of stuttering as bad and uncomfortable decreased.
Another point in which the concept of non-judgement comes in handy is after therapy has been ongoing for a while.
It’s easy to fall into the pitfall of qualifying our stutters:
This one was good because it was easy! That one was bad because I lost control and used secondary behaviors!
In fact, until very recently (until I read the article on neurodiversity link, just a few months ago!), I held onto some residual judgement about my secondary behaviors.
I considered each instance in which I used them as a failure. I was avoiding stuttering after all, and that, I felt, was bad.
But then (with the help of the article) I thought:
If I’m going to embrace the experience of stuttering in my life, I’m going to have to embrace my secondary behaviors. At the end of the day, they are a very common aspect of the stuttering experience
And I am a stutterer.
Non-judgement is difficult, so it’s beneficial to be patient with ourselves.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Though principles of mindfulness are implicit in many flavors of stuttering therapy, some practitioners explicitly target mindfulness practive with clients.
Speech Language Pathologists Carolyn Cheaseman and Rachel Everard discuss how they incorporate ACT into their therapy practices on a Stutter Talk podcast(2015).
Acceptance and Commitment therapy focuses on accepting one’s current situation in the present moment, as opposed to harping on past feelings and actions.
Clients in this therapy framework learn to manage uncomfortable thoughts and feelings more effectively, which creates time to do things these clients value (Cheasman & Everard 2005).
The interview host, Chris Constantino, states:
In this framework, stuttering isn’t considered a problem in and of itself. Rather, ACT helps clients deal with issues related to stuttering that arise along the way (Cheaseman & Everard, 2015).
One of these issues may have to do with a lack of control.
Cheaseman and Everard state that control is a natural tendency. They invite clients to observe their attempt at controlling their feelings.
Then, Cheaseman and Everard ask clients what this control is costing them.
If the cost outweighs the benefit, clients explore changing these behaviors.
Cheaseman and Everard make clear that unpleasant feelings – anxiety, fear – are natural. They encourage clients to acknowledge these feelings and and allow these feelings to be.
In this way, clients desensitize themselves to uncomfortable feelings about stuttering, like they desensitize themselves to stuttering itself.
Clients give themselves permission to feel shame and feel struggle.
What does the research say about mindfulness and stuttering?
A recent study explores the effectiveness of an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) program for people who stutter (Belby, Byrnes, Yaruss, 2012).
The study results:
At the end of eight weeks, improvement measured by a series of scales, questionnaires and tests, was noted across all variables measured, including psychosocial functioning, readiness for therapy and change, utilization of mindfulness skills, and frequency of stuttering.
A three month follow up showed maintenance of these gains.
These results suggest that mindfulness principles, like attention to the present moment, could have a positive impact on psychological functioning and readiness for change and could be correlated with decreased frequency of stuttering.
Mindfulness practice without a stuttering context
As described above, tenants of mindfulness fit seamlessly into stuttering therapy, regardless of therapy type.
But some have pointed to mindfulness meditation as the catalyst for stuttering-related change, despite not focusing directly on their stuttering.
Brockelhurst describes spending years of his young adult life devoted to formal meditation, but credits a reduction in stuttering-related tension to informal meditation: By simply paying attention to his actions and the goings on in his life.
While speaking, he watched the speaking process without trying to interfere. He passively watched himself speak as opposed to actively forcing word out.
Guess what happened:
He found himself blocking less.
Mindfulness helped researcher and person who stutters, Ellen-Marie Silverman, change her self-concept.
She reports that a mindfulness practice helped her untangle her perceived self worth from her fluency. That is, she no longer thinks of herself as more of a person when she is fluent and less of a person when she stutters (2003).
She appreciates that stuttering provides her the opportunity to give up some control, which, as mentioned above, is a central theme in mindfulness.
And she describes less stuttering-related fear of speaking since taking up mindful meditation.
Further, the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, established by John Kabat-Zinn at The University of Massachusetts, has helped thousands of people cope with a variety of maladies including chronic pain and anxiety.
At the end of the eight week course, most participants report positive change, whether in the realm of general increased well being or, more specifically, improved physical health (Kabat-Zinn, 2009).
Though this program is not specifically for people who stutter, it can reasonably be assumed that anyone — stutterers included! — could reap benefits from starting a mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness principles, like acceptance, non-judgmental self-monitoring, and letting go are implicit in many flavors of stuttering therapy. Many of these topics are addressed at some point in therapy without the concept of mindfulness ever arising.
Others take up a mindfulness practice with the explicit goal of changing stuttering behaviors. Some kinds of therapy, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, teach mindfulness along with other therapy principles.
Preliminary research has suggested that this style of therapy is beneficial and fosters lasting change.
Still others take up a mindfulness practice without any intention of changing their stuttering behaviors, but find that many aspects of their lives — stuttering included — seem impacted by mindfulness practice.
Though fostering a mindfulness practice may not be everyone’s cup of tea, research and anecdotal evidence suggest that this ancient practice could help people who stutter change their stuttering behaviors and stuttering-related attitudes.
Do you have a mindfulness practice?
Has it effected your stuttering in any way?
Let me know in the comments!
Mindfulness and Stuttering related articles:
Brockelhurst, P. (2015, July 6). Stuttering, Meditation and Mindfulness from the IFA in Portugal (Ep. 528) (T. Weidig, Interviewer).Retrieved from http://stuttertalk.com/self-help-support-groups-for-stuttering-ep-446/
Cheasman, C., Everard, R. (2015, July 8). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy with Cheasman and Everard from the World Congress in Portugal (Ep. 537). C. Constantino, Interviewer). Retrieved from