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The promising research behind mindfulness and stuttering

by Benjamin Peim

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Imagine trying to speak, but words seem to get caught in your vocal cords, unable to fly out of your mouth. You try to force out the words, but the problem just worsens. Over time, you develop methods to just get the words out. You wrinkle your nose, cast your eyes to the side, or clench your fists. But soon enough these coping mechanisms start to lose their effectiveness. You’re back where you started, but now with verbal and physical tics to boot.

This can be everyday life for people who stutter, an estimated one percent of the population. What causes stuttering is unknown, but it’s thought to be partly genetic. For those who stutter, it can curb career choices, make social events especially intimidating, restrict job promotions, and impede friendships.

What’s more, there is currently no cure. Instead, there are a number of therapies for stuttering, of varying degrees of effectiveness. What’s more, in trying to avoid stuttering, people often add on behaviors, which can ultimately make the stutter worse. But in the last few years, researchers and speech-language pathologists—who it seems are often stutterers themselves—are increasingly finding that mindfulness meditation can change the lives of those who stutter.

Paul Brocklehurst, 58, who grew up in Peterborough, England, counts himself as one of them. “It turned my life around,” Brocklehurst said. “It was the first time I’d ever really been able to enjoy life.”

Brocklehurst has coped with stuttering since he was three years old. He entered college with the aim of studying medicine, but his stutter grew so severe that he found himself barely able to utter even a pair of words fluently. Depressed and discouraged, he dropped out of college and soon began drinking and using drugs.

A 2012 study showed that mindfulness meditation scaled down participants' stuttering frequency.

He delved into meditation at 21 years old after reading, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

“I thought it was something I could do well because it didn’t require one to speak,” Brocklehurst said.

He devoted himself to meditating daily, many times for two to three hours a day. Eighteen months later, his stutter had gone into remission. Brocklehurst, now based in France, returned to school, received a degree in Speech Therapy and then a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics. He is now the director of the Stammering Self-Empowerment Programme, a nonprofit based in England. (Stuttering is often called stammering in England).

But Brocklehurst’s case is extraordinary. Researchers and speech-language pathologists (and Brocklehurst himself) caution that mindfulness meditation should not be seen as a cure-all, but as a tool that can be effective for many people if significant time is devoted to it.

The research supports this view. A 2012 study showed that mindfulness meditation helped participants reduce stuttering’s impact on their lives, and also scaled down their stuttering frequency. The researchers followed up with participants three months after the study’s completion and found that the positive effects had continued.

There are a number of different tools that people who stutter learn in speech therapy. But outside of the classroom, it can be hard to incorporate the techniques into everyday life. That’s where mindfulness can have a big impact.

“It improves your attentional focus,” said Michael Boyle, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Montclair State University in Bloomfield, N.J. “It’s a process of just being aware of the current moment.”

“It also helps to decrease emotional reactivity, which is a big thing in stuttering,” Boyle, who has written about how speech-language pathologists can use mindfulness meditation to complement existing therapies with people who stutter, added.

If a person who stutters becomes anxious and starts to ruminate over their stutter, it can actually cause the stuttering to grow more severe. Mindfulness helps people who stutter break the negative thought cycle, Boyle argued, by putting distance between themselves and the thoughts and emotions they’re experiencing.

Practicing mindfulness, moreover, can also lessen the stutter itself. Boyle gave the example of how people who stutter fret about introducing themselves to people, which can be very hard to do when stuttering.

“If you get into the mindset of ‘Oh, oh! What’s going to happen? They’re going to think I’m strange,’ and you tense up, the muscles in your body get tight,” Boyle explained. “It’s going to have a negative impact on your speech because you use muscles to speak. If you can ease up on the tension, it might break the cycle.”

The research community has been very receptive to mindfulness in speech-language therapy. Other researchers have published papers, and Boyle anticipates more work being done in the future.

Carolyn Cheasman, a specialist speech and language therapist and mindfulness teacher, has been working with adults who stutter for 37 years. Since 2007, she has taught mindfulness meditation to people who stutter at City Lit in London, England, which offers a range of services to adults who stutter.

She said that, while it’s not for everyone, she has seen people make remarkable strides using mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is about allowing and letting be, rather than fighting it,” she said, in reference to stuttering.

“Stammering is what you do when you try not to stammer,” Cheasman continued. While she allowed that there may be an underlying neurophysiological behavior, “the core behavior might be quite small and it just gets so layered up over the years as people try not to do it.”

“Paradoxically, when people let go and stop trying to fix it,” she said, “it actually becomes a lot easier to deal with.”

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.

Benjamin Peim

Benjamin Peim is a freelance journalist based in Jersey City, N.J. He has written about crime and health for various publications. He recently began meditating.