How Stress Affects Your Voice: Beginning With the Body & Biology
Updated: Apr 26
Much like the pain you experience in the throat when crying (known as the globus sensation), we often experience pain and tension in the throat (muscle tension dysphonia) when we become stressed. This can be particularly chronic for those suffering from anxiety.
Events that cause you to become stressed engage the sympathetic nervous system [SNS] which as a result expands your throat and draws apart an opening (known as the glottis) between your vocal folds to allow as much oxygen as possible to enter your body. This great influx of oxygen is then used as fuel to fight or flight, the ultimate endgame of this automatic nervous system.
If you talk when your body is in a state of high alert, this ultimately vibrates your vocal folds approximately 110 times a second, and ends up doing the exact opposite of what your body wants to do — which is to literally shut up and keep those vocal folds apart! This spasmodic tension produced at the vocal fold level gives the wobbly shaky phonation (fancy word for voicing) we are accustomed to hear from a nervous speaker. It is simply that the fine muscles are being pulled in two different directions at once! Paradoxically, talking can also help to relieve stress and I will speak more on this later. On the other side; the parasympathetic nervous system [PNS] is active when no threat is observed and encourages growth, rest and acts as counter balance to the high energy consuming sympathetic nervous system. When you’re at home reading a book, this system is the master helmsman.
But there’s more to this relaxed system than meets the eye! As we became more sophisticated and the ability to communicate and empathise became more crucial, the neo-cortex arose in the brain, and from that a new vagal branch (the myelinated vagus nerve) filtered down into our body and began to give rise to facial expressions, vocalisations, and other requirements that allow us to create social bonds. More specifically, this myelinated vagus nerve, is energised when the parasympathetic nervous system is in control and connects to the Nucleus Ambiguus [NA], which in turn controls our larynx, soft palate, phalanx and also regulates our heart beat (more on the latter to come). You’ll notice that all these former parts are required for speech.
But when you become stressed, you switch from the PNS to the SNS. So, this is why when you become stressed the ability to communicate is severely reduced; those special nerves controlling speech and the brake on your heart rate are just about switched off because the body has kicked fight or flight into gear! This is why you might stammer, why you might yell with no coherence, why your heart beats a thousand times a second, why your voice might tire out, why you might go extremely quiet, why you get tongue-tied, flabbergasted, can’t finish the end of a sentence or put two and two together, why your facial expressions may go lifeless, why you go into the silent treatment, why you might turn to violence or avoidance strategies, and the list continues. None of which help create social bonds or communicate…
Your ability to empathise, recognise facial expressions and listen are just about switched off as well.
This is an example of why children who live in abusive or stressful households find it difficult to concentrate at school, create bonds or develop emotionally. The SNS keeps mammals like humans alive, but it also creates conflict where it may not be necessary to react in such a manner, unfortunately your body doesn’t know the difference between a speech you’re about to give, and a hungry predator on the prowl. “Your body holds the score” as it is now known.
When it comes to anxiety, the ability to regulate between the two systems is also dampened, and events outside us, that are actually safe, are perceived as threats (neuroception) and thus the sympathetic nervous system is constantly activated. With no down time, and the vocal folds constantly pulled apart, along with the prerequisite to communicate in a social gathering which ultimately causes social anxiety, it can become tremendously tiring to speak.
So, what can you do about it?
Continue with Chapter Two here.