Friday, September 27, 2013

Relapse and the revenge of the subconscious

You may be familiar with the following scenario. You're having a period of relative fluency and all seems to be going well. You think that maybe you're finally beating the stutter which plagued you for so long. Then, one day, you're getting the most terrible blocks and can't say a word without stuttering. This stresses you immensely, so that your speech deteriorates even further. You're experiencing a full-blown relapse, and things seem worse than ever. What causes it, and what can be done about it?

It is important to remember that our conscious mind is only a small part of our mental makeup. We also have a subconscious, not unlike a computer, which stores our past memories, feelings and experiences in its huge memory. Unfortunately for us it also remembers our previous stutterings, fears and other negative feelings linked to our speech defect.

In our subconscious is also contained our self-image and concept of self. And when a person has stuttered for many years, the self-concept is affected by it. After so many years of stuttering, the individual develops a "stutterer's self-concept". In his subconscious mind he is a stutterer, even if he is fluent for a day or longer.

So what happens when a person manages to become fluent for some time, perhaps after attending an intensive anti-stuttering course, or enjoying a relaxing holiday, or after doing a lot of speech exercises diligently? Well, the subconscious is a conservative and slow-working machine, but sooner or later it will get the message that the status quo is changing; the subconscious self-concept is receiving input that there is no stuttering.

The backlash

If you are lucky, the subconscious will quickly accept this new input, and adapt gradually to better fluency. More often than not, however, the stutterer's self-concept will resist the new fluency, because this fluency clashes with the self-concept's reason for being there in the first place. This subconscious resistance will result in conflict. And subconscious conflict means stress, which will quickly impact on your recently acquired fluency. The result is a dramatic increase in stuttering - due to the subconscious backlash.

Though the relapse is of course very upsetting, it serves a subconscious purpose; it restores the customary stuttering and reassures the stutterer's self-concept that it is not under threat and that nothing has changed. And so things go on as before. You return to your old ways of stuttering, and though you don't like it, at least you don't have those terrible feelings of insecurity, anxiety and maybe even panic which resulted from the subconscious upheaval caused by your tentative experience of fluency.

A person in my old self-help group for stuttering said it succinctly: fluent periods of time, she said, always felt artificial; it wasn't really her talking fluently like that. As a stutterer, however, she felt comfortable, and people around her just had to accept her like that.

The woman's view shows the power of the subconscious "stutterer's self-concept", and it also has big implications for treatment. No surprise that she rejected fluency techniques, instead preferring an approach aimed at better adjustment to stuttering.

Subconscious resistance to fluency is a major reason why stuttering therapy is so difficult and why stutterers in treatment so often relapse. Dr Martin Schwartz, who described the subconscious backlash in his excellent book Stop Stuttering (1986), believes that this backlash is one of two major sources of relapse (the other is failure to do the necessary practising to decondition yourself from stuttering).

What can we do about it?

The first point to bear in mind is that a relapse is, paradoxically, a positive sign that you are on the right track. It shows that the subconscious stutterer within you has taken note of your improvement, and desperately tries to regain the upper hand. You have made an impression, and it is not taken lightly.

Secondly, don't regard the subconscious mind as the enemy. It is not; it is part of who you are. The stutterer's self-concept can in fact be seen as the stuttering, fearful child of your past, not the grown person who wishes to improve his / her speech. This inner child should be comforted and assuaged; it should be reassured that all is still well. Be gentle with it, and above all take it slowly. To change from the self-concept of a stutterer to that of a more fluent person should and will take time. It is a gradual, zigzag process of two steps forward and one step back; of progress followed by relapses.

I speak from experience; at the time when I made big strides in fluency through the Passive Airflow Technique I also encountered huge, unexpected relapses, which you can read about here. The subconscious is like a slow-marching army of foot soldiers; it takes its time and doesn't like to be hurried, and can lash out when confronted. Instead, coax it gradually in the right direction, like a huge ship which needs to be turned.

Stress management

Thirdly, focus on stress management when facing a relapse. Don't overreact to a relapse; it's not the end of the world. Rather do something about the increased stress levels that underlie the relapse and feed the stutter. A hot, long, relaxing bath, a workout or a bit of running, or a good night's sleep may be all that is needed to return your fluency to its previous levels. I cannot overemphasise the importance of good stress management for people who stutter, particularly when in treatment and encountering relapses. A low-stress diet, avoiding caffeine and taking certain stress-relieving vitamins and mineral supplements, yoga and relaxation exercises, meditation and mindfulness, holidays and entertainment - there are so many things you can do to reduce and manage stress.

Fourthly, work on adjusting your self-concept and self-image. For this it may be necessary to get support such as counselling, attending self-help / support groups to keep your spirits up, or even psychotherapy. Working with a speech therapist could also be of much help to adjust to better speech. Dr Schwartz provided his clients with a CD containing hypnotic messages, to be listened to in the bath or before sleeping, aimed at reassuring the subconscious mind that all is well. My own solution was to read various books on psychological self-improvement which really helped me to adjust to better speech.

In summary: Working toward fluency, with all its psychological and social ramifications, is a journey which takes time - and on this journey don't forget to take your subconscious mind with you.


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