Managing stuttering

Originally Published: March 30, 2007 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 5, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I am a college student with a stuttering problem. I sometimes stutter when talking in the classroom, which causes much embarrassment. I stutter less with friends and family. I've had this problem since the beginning of high school, but it comes and goes — in fact, sometimes I go months, semesters, or even a year or two without stuttering. Then all of a sudden it comes back. I had very minimal (almost no) stuttering last year, but the problem has come back this year. People say that stuttering is a result of nervousness and/or self-consciousness. I do not deny that I am more likely to stutter when I am nervous, but I also stutter when I am completely calm and worry-free. One interesting thing: I never stutter when I am talking to myself alone.

I have a public speaking presentation at the end of this semester — do you have any advice on how to limit the stuttering? Any quick tips, since I do not have the time or money to see a speech therapist.

— Wants to Communicate Freely

Dear Wants to Communicate Freely,

Experts suggest that people who stutter are more likely to do it when they're nervous. It's important that you notice how your stuttering comes and goes depending on your audience. And it sounds like you might have some of your own tricks that work to calm your stuttering, even if you aren't totally aware of them. To help yourself pick up on them, think about how your ways of holding your body and your breath are different when you're speaking with your family and friends, compared to when speaking in class or to large groups.

For the most part, these differences might have to do with how tense your muscles are and the way you breathe. When people are nervous, their muscles become tense and their breathing becomes shallow, making the experience of public speaking much more uncomfortable. But it doesn't have to be that way. Many now-savvy public speakers say that paying a little attention to muscular relaxation and breathing makes a big impact on their confidence and effectiveness as speakers.

Let's tackle breathing first. Many nervous speakers tend to breathe with shallow breaths. This actually produces a sort of hyperventilation. To prevent this, experts on effective public speaking suggest breathing training:

  • Sit calmly in a quiet room for 20 minutes with your eyes closed.
  • Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
  • As you breathe in and out, be conscious of your breath entering your lungs and filling your belly.
  • Hold each breath for two to three seconds.
  • As you slowly exhale, think or say the word "relax."

If you practice breathing on a daily basis before the speech, you'll begin to notice and correct your shallow breathing. Then, on the big day, you'll be more likely to breathe deeply and slowly. Your nerves will be calm and you'll be less likely to stutter.

Another thing to consider is muscular tension. To get your muscles to relax for your speech, you might consider regular, light stretching. To start, you'll need to warm up your muscles by walking (or doing some other light cardiovascular activity) for at least five minutes. Then, spend about 10 - 20 minutes stretching your upper body (chest, arms, mid-section, neck, and shoulders) and your lower body (legs, butt, feet, and hips) to relieve tension.

Another way to increase muscular relaxation is to exercise regularly and moderately (walk, run, swim, bike, strength-training, practice yoga, etc.). On the day of the speech, it'd be best to do this about two to three hours before your speech, making sure you eat a light snack afterward. If by doing this, you'd be starting a new exercise program, you might want to first get the green light from your health care provider.

As you become more conscious of muscle relaxation and breathing, and once you know your speech material well, it'll also help you to practice your speech several times before you actually give it. As you practice, take note of your posture and breathing. Try to relax your muscles and deepen your breath as you speak — you'll notice a difference.

These techniques may help give you the confidence you need to rock your speech, but there's no guarantee that your stuttering won't stay at bay — although it's much less likely to come up. So, if in the future, your stuttering still bugs you, you want to learn more about it, or you want to take a different approach to changing it, you could check in with either your school's counseling or primary care center. If you're a Columbia student, you can call Counseling and Psychological Services at x4-2878 or Primary Care Medical Services (PCMS) at x4-2284 to make an appointment. You can also log-in through Open Communicator to make an appointment at PCMS.

Many, many people have become effective public speakers by increasing awareness about their breathing and muscle relaxation. Whether or not you decide to look further into your stuttering, you now have some tools to help you with your upcoming public speaking presentation. But, hey, if all else fails, you can always just picture the audience naked!

Alice