A Fresh Look At Environment’s Role in Stuttering

Written by Matthew O’Malley

In a recent post, I talked about what I call “contextual fluctuation”.  Contextual fluctuation is fluctuation in stuttering severity and speech control based on environmental factors.  For example, a person who stutters usually stutters significantly less or not at all when they are alone in comparison to when they are speaking to another person.  This would be an example of contextual fluctuation.  The person’s stuttering severity was affected by a change in the environment; they stutter more when their environment has another person in it and stutter less when their environment does not have another person in it.

Contextual fluctuation has a lot of complexity to it.  The above scenario is a relatively common one for most people who stutter.  However, the environment is complex with a number of moving elements.  Each person who stutters has their own complex combination of environmental factors that increase and decrease stuttering.  There are some common trends in these patterns among most people who stutter.

To a lay person as well as those who are educated in this discipline, these fluctuations in stuttering severity based on environment are puzzling.  The initial reaction to someone learning this knowledge about stuttering is bewilderment.  The idea that environment can have such a profound impact on a physical behavior (speaking) draws intrigue.  Many quickly conclude, “it’s anxiety”.  But, in what other scenario does anxiety cause complete inaction or “blocking”?

In my experience, usually where there is awe and bewilderment, there is something amiss in the belief system of the person experiencing the awe.  When we observe a reality and become puzzled by it, it is because the reality we are observing does not fit into our belief system.  When we look at stuttering and how the environment has such a large impact on it, most people experience this puzzled awe.

Well, what might be amiss in the belief system that is causing this puzzled awe?

What might be off in our belief system is our views on the power of the environment.  Because the environment is not directly connected to us physiologically, we tend to view it as somewhat weak.  The environment is “outside of us”, therefore we conclude that its power over us is minimal.  This is why when someone learns of the powerful impact environment has on stuttering, they are puzzled; because their understanding of environment’s power is that it is quite limited.

In understanding stuttering, we may need to rethink our beliefs about environment.  I have spent much time on the subject.  I like to think of “environment” as “input”.  The word “environment” implies that it is separate from us.  This physical separation causes us to, like I said, view it as impotent.  However, environment is basically input.  It is data about our surroundings that is taken in through our senses.  It is directly interacting with our senses.  Visual data is sensed and processed through our eyes and nervous system.  Tactile data is sensed and processed through touch etc.

In addition, as environmental data is processed through our senses, we filter it and assign it meaning.  For example, if you arrive home on your birthday and see a gift waiting for you on the entry table, you have already processed and assigned meaning to sensory input.  You walked in your door and processed visual information.  The visual information you processed allowed you to know there was a gift on your front entry table.  Virtually instantly, you assign it meaning.  You likely feel good and are guessing who it’s from.   You likely have processed this environmental stimuli and assigned it positive meaning.  The experiential result is likely you feel good and excited.

The amount of physiological processes that are happening in the above outlined scenario are too numerous to list.  Here are just a few examples.  When you process environmental stimuli through your senses, lots of events are happening physiologically.  Light waves physically hit your eye.  Your eye processes this environmental stimuli through a complex physiological process.  Data is transmitted through the nervous system and is interpreted by the brain to the point where you experience your perception and can identify objects (like the gift).  Similar processes are happening for all of your senses at all times, differing with environmental stimuli.  You then interpret the data your senses have taken in and assign it meaning.  You might assign it “danger” or “happiness”.  Based on the meaning you assign, many more physiological processes happen in your neurology and in your body.  Certain chemicals and hormones will act differently based on the meaning you have assigned to your environment.  Blood flow changes.  Heart rate changes.  Many physiological changes are happening in the brain.

The above events all require significant physiological changes in an individual’s physical body and brain based on the varying elements of one’s environment.

Bottom line:  Environment is powerful.  Environment affects physiology significantly.

Some thoughts based on this:

A part of stuttering treatment should be to teach ourselves to assign new meanings to environmental stimuli.  This should help with contextual fluctuation.

If you are working to change your stuttering patterns, be kind to yourself.  Environment is powerful and you should respect it as such.  Don’t kick yourself for “not succeeding” in environments that may induce more stuttering.

Some questions:

The attempt to control speech and “not stutter” is my current explanation for contextual fluctuation (covered in previous posts).  In keeping an open mind I’m still asking questions.

Do the exact physiological changes that occur based on environment coincidentally trigger the physiology that induces blocking and stuttering?  Let’s say there is aberrant brain physiology in the brains of people who stutter.  Do the exact physiological changes that occur in the brain, let’s say, in the presence of another person; do these exact physiological changes interact directly with whatever the neurological anomaly might be in the brain of a person who stutters?

To simplify, there are physiological changes in a person (in their brain, in their body) when they are in the presence of another person as opposed to not being in the presence of a person (even for people who don’t stutter).  What exactly are these physiological differences?  Exactly what is different physiologically in a person in the presence of another person as opposed to a person who is alone?  Does the exact physiological difference in the presence of another person directly interact with aberrant neurology present in the individual with the stuttering condition?

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