If you’ve seen the movie, The King’s Speech, you will immediately recognize that the king suffered from a form of Mind Body Syndrome. He had a very difficult childhood, despite (or because of) being a prince. His parents were not present (as was the custom for those days and that class) and his major source of “parental” affection was from his nanny. Unfortunately, his nanny favored his older brother who tormented him and therefore George grew up feeling less worthy, unloved, and unable to assert himself. All of this eventually led to the expression of his underlying emotional conflicts in his stammer. The origin of his stammer was clear (it was the physical manifestation of underlying psychological issues). Why did it persist for so many years? The answer is that it became a learned nerve pathway. That pattern of speech became ingrained into his nervous system over time and that was the natural way that his brain processed the signals when he was required to speak. Of course, the stammer would be more severe under times of stress, but it couldn’t be reversed until he had treatment that helped to uncover the underlying conflicts and conscious application of methods to reverse the nerve pathways.
Stuttering (or stammering, I believe these can be used interchangeably) is quite common in children. I don’t recall this, but my mother told me that I started to stutter right after my sister was born. I guess I was used to being the “prince” in my household until she came along to usurp my parents attention. Fortunately, it didn’t last too long. My mother got me to sing songs (the stutter disappeared during singing) much of the time, gave me extra attention, and the nerve pathways reversed over time.
Stuttering typically begins in childhood, but there is another form of stress-induced speech disorder that usually begins later in life that is similar to stuttering, spasmodic dysphonia. This condition occurs primarily in young adults (ages 30-50) and is more likely to affect women, which is similar to the demographics of those who suffer from Mind Body syndromes, such as headaches, fibromyalgia, back and neck pain, and irritable bowel and bladder syndromes. There is no known abnormality of the vocal cords, per se. The difficulty in speaking is variable, can be made worse with stress, and may not occur during singing or speaking in high pitched voices (when slightly different nerve pathways are activated, as apparently my mother figured out when trying to help my stuttering). Some professional singers suffer from this condition and can have difficulty in singing.
When I have conducted detailed interviews with people with spasmodic dysphonia, the typical pattern emotional events that create MBS are present. We find childhood priming events (such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or situations similar to those experienced by the later King George) and triggering events later in life (such as losses, situations that trigger the “danger” signals, etc.) that produce the nerve pathways leading to the characteristic speech pattern of spasmodic dysphonia.
When one reads the medical literature about spasmodic dysphonia, the notion that this disorder can be caused by psychological distress is soundly dismissed. But that is also the case for the rest of the MBS disorders. For example, those with chronic fatigue syndrome are insulted when this notion is broached and the recent study showing that psychotherapy can help chronic fatigue syndrome is criticized by the support groups that would rather be afflicted with a virus, that may be incurable than entertain the possibility of being able to reverse the severe fatigue by psychological means.
Reversing stuttering and spasmodic dysphonia is the same as for other manifestations of MBS. The first step requires a clear understanding that the symptoms are real; they are not imagined, nor are they produced willfully, but are created by powerful nervous system pathways that will continue to trigger symptoms until they are stopped. The second step is to realize that one can get better. This is not a genetic condition (there may be genetic predispositions, but these require environmental triggers to be expressed, and can be reversed). This is not a degenerative neurologic condition such as Parkinson’s disease. It is reversible, so there is the strong possibility that one can improve and reverse the condition with MBS treatment. The third step is to investigate the circumstances (starting with childhood events and carefully exploring the situations that triggered the symptoms) that created the speech problems. An open and detailed review of one’s life will generally make the connections quite obvious. A guide to this process is available in my book, Unlearn Your Pain (chapter 5).
Once these steps have occurred, it should be clear that the actual diagnosis is Mind Body syndrome and this usually releases a great deal of positive energy that is necessary to unlock the nervous system pathways that keep one stuck in the abnormal speech patterns (or other symptoms of MBS). The treatment program outlined in Unlearn Your Pain includes a variety of therapeutic writing exercises, meditative exercises, positive affirmations, and other exercises that are designed to help people reverse their symptoms. Conscious processes can override the learned nerve pathways and this is the beauty of treating MBS—the majority of people experience significant or dramatic improvements. As with King George, when one “finds their voice” they can reclaim their life.
To your health,
Howard Schubiner, MD