"Fight or Flight" in the Stuttering Experience

May 26, 2021
Mark O’Malia, M.S., CCC-SLP
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Oftentimes, analogies are fantastic ways to help explain and understand a concept. We rely heavily on analogies here at AIS. One of the first questions that we ask our clients when they come in for a consultation with us is, “What does stuttering feel like to you?” While we get a wide variety of responses, many common analogies tend to emerge, such as:

“When I get stuck, it feels like an out of body experience”

“I completely black out”

“It’s like I’m drowning”

“I hide inside my body until the word is ready to come out”

“It’s like I’m waiting for someone to trip me at any given moment, and I don’t know when it will happen”

Pretty intense, huh? Stuttering is certainly a very individual experience, but the common thread that we see is a loss of control. And if there is one thing that is pretty universal about being a human being, it is that losing control can feel hard, scary, and emotionally draining. In fact, there is an entire system in the body meant to help humans through this taxing experience - the autonomic nervous system. You have probably experienced its impact through the “fight or flight” response

You see, humans have evolved in a number of incredible ways over millions of years. We are able to think, reason, problem solve, make memories, read, write, speak….the list goes on and on. But throughout these years of evolving, one thing has remained constant. There is a bias for us to remember negative experiences very quickly, as they are more likely to pose a risk to our survival. Ever develop a fear of bees after getting stung, and you have a mini freak out whenever you see a bee flying towards you? Yeah, THAT’S what we’re talking about here. 

The “fight or flight” response is meant to do one thing: keep us safe from danger. It pumps adrenaline through our veins, gets our heart pumping faster so we have more blood flow to our bodies for action, tightens our muscles so we are able to fight or get out of a situation, and shuts down rational thinking so we are able to make split second decisions. 

Pretty cool, right? 

Well, while this response can save your life if you run into a tiger in the jungle, it doesn’t help as much for someone who stutters who is about to make a phone call at work or order their caramel macchiato at Starbucks. But the thing is, the response is “all or nothing” - the brain can’t tell the difference between a tiger or a coffee order when push comes to shove. Over time, when we perceive stuttering as a negative experience that threatens our well-being, our bodies remember and keep triggering our “fight or flight” into action. This is the part of the stuttering experience that can be so challenging to navigate, and in actuality, is part of the reason why it is so difficult to just “use your fluency strategies” when it matters most to you.

Why is this important?

Being in “fight or flight” is uncomfortable - of course it is human nature for people who stutter to want to avoid the tornado of feelings that come along with losing control! However, the more we avoid the thing that causes us to have the response, the more often we have the response when thinking about it and approaching it. Living this way can become a vicious cycle of always being on “high alert”, waiting for the next speaking situation that may cause us to feel all we might be trying to suppress. Physical struggle behaviors and muscular tension while stuttering can be traced back to this protective mechanism. For many who walk through our doors at AIS, it is this physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that finally convince them to say “enough is enough”, and look for a change.

So, what do we do about it?

Here are 3 things to keep in mind as you start the process of reducing your “fight or flight” response to the stuttering moment: 

1. Examine your relationship with stuttering

As you can imagine, before we are able to make sustainable changes to the stuttering experience, we first must examine the relationship you have with stuttering. Some of these questions might help get you started:

  • Do you actively perceive stuttering as a threat - What makes you go there? (shame, perceived stigma, microaggressions)
  • What are some of the “gremlins” that might be causing that protective response to keep triggering? 
  • What speaking situations trigger your “fight or flight” response most often? Why?

Taking some time to explore these questions is incredibly important in order to understand what keeps your personal response so reactive. 

2. Get out of your head and into your body!

We have yet another analogy at AIS when it comes to understanding the dynamic between the mind and body. The mind tends to be like an “A” student - it quickly grasps  the logic of facing fear and approaching the things that scare us in order to reduce stress and reactivity. Makes total sense! But the body is more like a “C” student - it will get there eventually, but it may need a bit more time and repetition to truly “get it” and work through old habits. This is why it is very common for people to quickly become okay talking about stuttering as a concept, but have a much harder time giving themselves permission to actually show it. We like to utilize different somatic approaches, mindfulness meditation, and systematic exposure work to help your body reduce its reactivity to the stuttering moment. 

Think of it this way: Have you ever watched the same horror movie multiple times in a row? I’m sure the first time you watched it, you were on the edge of your seat waiting for the next jump scare to happen. 

But have you ever sat down and watched the same movie for the 7th time in a row? I would bet that by that viewing, your body would be much less tense, you would be thinking more rationally throughout the film, and you would even notice parts of the movie that you were too emotionally triggered to watch the first time. This is exactly what happens when we start to approach moments of stuttering without avoidance - while scary at first, our bodies quickly adapt and realize that there is no immediate threat to our well-being, thereby making our experience of speaking much easier and more comfortable. Many people come to realize that their "problem" was never stuttering, but all of the fight that their body and mind put up against the moment of stuttering from happening in the first place.

3. Find space spaces to “normalize” stuttering

As Brene Brown stated, “Shame needs three things to survive: secrecy, silence, and judgment”. 

We can’t make long standing changes to the stuttering experience if we don’t talk openly about it. Oftentimes, it is incredibly important to slowly start sharing with trusted individuals some of the ups and downs that stuttering can cause. Clients are often shocked to realize that people don’t automatically understand the “under the surface” thoughts and emotions that tend to go along with stuttering. 

It can also be incredibly therapeutic to connect with the larger stuttering community to receive support, encouragement, mutual understanding, and friendship from people who truly get it and live it themselves. Luckily, there are a ton of community resources that see the great importance of this as well (check out our event calendar to keep up with some of our own support/community offerings).


The American Institute for Stuttering is a leading non-profit organization whose primary mission is to provide universally affordable, state-of-the-art speech therapy to people of all ages who stutter, guidance to their families, and much-needed clinical training to speech professionals wishing to gain expertise in stuttering. Offices are located in New York, NY and Atlanta, GA, and services are also available Online. Our mission extends to advancing public and scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood disorder.

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