Speechless: How the Stress Response Keeps You Silent

Most of us have had the common nightmare where you are being chased by something horrifying and malevolent. You feel in imminent danger but when you open your mouth to scream, your voice does not come out!  You feel doomed because the danger is closing in and your one hope for rescue: your voice, has left you. This is typically when you wake up in sheer terror gasping for air, relieved to find you were only dreaming. While this common nightmare has many metaphorical interpretations, the part that can be frighteningly real is how extreme anxiety and panic can literally rob you of your voice.  

Another “lighter” example of this is often portrayed in teenage angst movies. Here we see the young male character has finally worked up the nerve to speak to the girl of his dreams, only to open his mouth and squeak like a mouse. He stutters over the words he rehearsed a thousand times in front of the mirror. Alas, he is overcome with embarrassment and walks away humiliated.

The anxiety produced over real or perceived events (the brain does not know the difference) is detrimental to the communication process. This is because the speech process, beginning with your voice, involves the same process that is essential for your survival. Your voice depends on your respiratory system. If, as the saying goes, something has “taken your breath away” you probably won’t be able to talk about it at that moment. Breathless = Speechless.

When you are triggered into fight or flight aka the stress response, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. In the absence of adequate breath, you will resort to using muscle tension to turn your voice on resulting in squeaking, croaking, or other embarrassing noises you did not know you could make. Upon hearing these strange noises, you become more anxious. Now you have forgotten what you were going to say but the silence is awkward so you try to say anything and you end up saying something that makes no sense and on top of that you stutter.

Your body has become pumped with survival hormones that are good for helping you run away from the boogie man or lift impossibly heavy things to save a life but are not so good for your longing to authentically communicate your desires or tell someone you care about how you are feeling. This often results in the use of that fallback phrase “What I’m trying to say is…” But if you are communicating authentically from your true self, no effort is needed. Your message will flow from you with confidence and ease.

People who suffer from anxiety disorders (who doesn’t these days) such as generalized anxiety, phobias and/or panic attacks often have the stress response to everyday life occurrences such as being in a crowded restaurant or walking in late for class. Simple communication tasks like giving the waitress your order or explaining to the teacher why you are late become monumental and are set-ups for potential embarrassment. This is more common than you think and is the reason why public speaking consistently makes the top 10 human fear list. The sad repercussion of all this is a vicious cycle where the stress response accompanies most communication attempts. This, unfortunately, then leads to increased social withdrawal. Because of this, you can begin to feel less connected and increasingly isolated. Anxiety now introduces you to its cousin, depression. Depression falsely tells you that this is the way life is and it’s not going to change.

When I work with clients who are caught up in this vicious communication anxiety-depression cycle, just identifying what is happening often gives them a sense of relief. As always, the solution comes down to basics, and in the case of communicating, as it is with life, that basic is breath. I teach my clients how to use breath to effortlessly communicate with intention. It is with breath that you release the voice that is your unique sound fingerprint, the musical signature of your true self. Through deep breath awareness and practice, you reduce anxiety because when you are breathing slowly and deeply your body gets the message that “everything is ok” and it does not initiate the stress response. From this natural place of well being, my client can produce his/her authentic voice. Now communication can begin to flow fluidly instead of being forced and sounding choppy.  As my clients gain more positive experiences with fluid communication, they begin to build confidence in their ability to express themselves authentically. I can honestly say that nothing gives me more joy than watching my clients experience this transformative process!

Does the stress response interfere with the way you express yourself? Are you frustrated and depressed because you are not showing up in all of your glory? Would you like to experience communicating your true essence with ease and confidence? I would love to help you! Contact me and let’s get started. The world is waiting for you to honor your voice!

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