Stammering teenagers

The vicious cycle


The psychology of emotions.

The vicious cycle

One way of understanding how situations influence your stammering is to consider how thoughts and feelings about speech and speaking situations affect fluency. This is the vicious cycle of stammering.

The vicious cycle is not a new idea, but one that is well described by Cognitive Therapy, which helps us to understand the role of thoughts and beliefs in making situations better or worse for ourselves. It is quite a simple idea but it deals with a very complicated subject: the psychology of emotions!

Consider this scenario,  the phone rings...

First thought: "Oh no, I know I'll stammer, I always do on the phone but I should answer it - it'll be a disaster."

Response: Panic; heart rate increases, palms start sweating and tension rises.

Result: You don't answer ("I'll pretend I was out - oh, it's stopped ringing thank goodness").

Then: "I knew I wouldn't be able to do it. It's no good, what an idiot, why can't I do anything right?"

Sound familiar? This diagram illustrates how the vicious cycle seems to work:

Click here for diagram

Past experience

Most people are familiar with the idea of predicting problems based on past experience.


Situations can trigger a vicious cycle.

Negative thoughts

Negative thoughts flash through our minds (eg: "I'll stammer", "There's nothing I can do", "I won't be able to speak"). These thoughts may happen so quickly that you hardly even notice them but just feel bad. Underlying these powerful and convincing thoughts are the strongest of beliefs about the consequences of stammering (e.g. "They'll laugh at me", "They'll think I am stupid", "They won't listen or try to understand").


These thoughts are made worse by the natural reactions that go with them. It's normal to have an emotional response to the situation - you might feel nervous, ashamed, embarrassed or simply fed up!

Physical reactions

Getting hot or sweaty, heart pounding and butterflies in your stomach are also natural - the body responds to strong emotions. The problem is they tend to make things worse by making you even more self-conscious.

Knock-on effects

You may avoid a situation entirely, change words, not speak or say as little as possible. Or when you do speak you may be more likely to stammer because of the increased tension.

The cycle is completed

This behaviour can then strengthen the thoughts and beliefs ("I knew I couldn't do it"). And the next time the phone rings, you queue up to buy a train ticket or you prepare to give a presentation in class, the vicious cycle may be triggered again.

Alternatively sometimes you don't stammer and, being human, you put that down to luck and still assume the worst next time.