Saturday, July 3, 2010

Stress desensitization: How to play with a crocodile

When reading the posts on stuttering forums I get the impression that the term 'desensitization' is mostly used to describe the process where a covert (secretive) stutterer gradually becomes an overt stutterer by not being ashamed of his stutter and stuttering openly. Traditional wisdom has it that stuttering openly and not hiding his stutter is good for the stutterer. Desensitization, then, means the process where you lose your sensitivity about your stutter.

Desensitization, however, is in fact a wide term and can take many forms. It is, for instance, sometimes used to treat people suffering from phobias. Eg. an individual suffering from fear of heights may be treated via desensitization by first exposing him / her to very low and non-threatening heights (eg. an enclosed, windowed balcony on the first floor of a building), until all sense of fear and stress is lost. The patient is then exposed to a slighty increased situation, eg. the second floor balcony, once again until he is fully comfortable and has lost all anxiety and fear while at that level. Only then is he allowed to progress to higher levels.

It would seem that few stutterers use the term 'desensitization' in the above sense, yet this was the meaning as used in the Passive Airflow courses which I attended. Desensitization, in this sense, was a key ingredient in the process in which I cured myself of my stuttering in various situations, eg. ordering food in a restaurant or when doing shopping. That is not to say that I am TOTALLY cured of stuttering, but I am cured IN CERTAIN (AND MANY) SITUATIONS.

Desensitization, in this sense, works as follows for a particular situation such as talking to a shop assistant when shopping. Note that it should be combined with the application of a fluency technique which you have already learned.  Only advance to the next step when you feel ready for it and have succeeded in the previous step.

Step 1: Go to a shop and browse around, but don't talk to the shop assistant. Just be aware of how you feel. Do you feel tense? Anxious? Do you feel that you would stutter if you had to speak?

Step 2: Go to another shop, and don't talk. If you are tense, make a conscious effort of relaxing your body and mind as much as possible. Remember that the shop assistant is probably not the owner of the shop, just a (probably low-paid) employee and dependent on your good graces - the 'client is king' and the assistant will most likely be polite and anxious to be of assistance. So you are in a position of power. Be aware of this power.

Step 3: Go to another shop, and don't talk - but assess your stress level. If you are very stressed out and feel that you won't be able to use your fluency technique(s), go home and do a relaxation or physical exercise - anything to get your stress levels down. If you don't know how to manage stress, check out the chapter on stress in my book, which you can read HERE.

Step 4: Go to another shop, relax and just say a single word such as 'Hi' - but say it with the help of your fluency technique; and try to use the technique perfectly. Then leave the shop and congratulate yourself - you have passed a major hurdle!

Step 5: Go to another shop and say a slightly longer phrase such as 'Good morning' - but use perfect technique. Leave the shop and, if successful, celebrate!

REMEMBER:  If you stutter or feel stressed at any level of these gradual desensitization levels, go back to the previous level.

Step 6: Go to a shop and say a whole sentence (by using your fluency technique) such as 'Do you sell ... ?' (soap, after shave, etc. - fill in as applicable). Focus on using your technique correctly. If successful, buy yourself a present - you've deserved it!

Step 7: The next time, try having a real conversation with the shop assistant.

Step 8: Continue until you have desensitized yourself from all fear, stress and anxiety in shops.

You get the idea? The key word is GRADUAL; you use your fluency technique at low-stress levels of a particular situation hierarchy; the success achieved through this will lead to speaking confidence and less stress; then you tackle higher levels - and you return to lower levels as soon as you experience difficulty; always evaluating the quality of your technique application as well as evaluating your stress levels.

This approach can be used in so many other situations: ordering in restaurants; phone conversations; public speaking; etc. I provide more details in my book, under the chapter 'Applying the Technique in Real Life' which you can read by clicking HERE.

Densensitization, in this sense, is, so I believe, the key to fluency for people who stutter and who wish to really apply the techniques which they have learned in real life. I have found this type of desensitization hugely effective, even though it is time-consuming. Good luck!


  1. Thank you for providing this information. This is exactly what I need.

  2. Excellent Article! Yes, desensitization is not only done to eliminate Speaking fear but it's also very effective to eliminate many phobias, I myself had a phobia of travelling in Bus because there are many past stories in my country about Hijacking the Bus and burning the Bus with fire etc. I've done this by first travelling in Bus with my Dad, then with my brother, then with close friends and then finally I had learnt to travel alone. We should make hierarchy of our speaking situations to gradually desensitize from low-stress situations to high stress situations.

  3. There is also the concept of systimatic desentizing. You learn
    deep muscle relaxation as a part of
    using this. And another aproach is called flooding. This involves being in the stressful situation
    so long you just get tired of being
    scared of it. Like 2 weeks ago I found hearing another PWS stutter
    painful but after listening to a few podcast at Stuttertalk this hardly bothers me at all.

    I systimatic desintizing back in
    1972 with excelent results. But it stopped working when I started back smoking. At the time I didn't realy connect starting back smoking with not being able to relax but darn if the same thing happened again in 1981. I had been using the airflow method for a year or so and passing as fluent till I picked up cigerets. And I found quiting smoking again almost inpossiable.


  4. Thanks, Woody. Yes, so often we have habits that are enjoyable but detrimental to other aspects of our lives. Personally I see stuttering as a health issue that should be managed like all health issues. So stuttering for me is part of a larger system of management. In this way, stuttering management has become part of my life and fully integrated in my life. Also thanks for your other comments such as on flooding which I found insightful. Kind regards.