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The Voice and trauma

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

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The voice is an amazing tool to get to know who you really are.

Its shaped by our earliest infant experiences . Through the voice people communicate who they are and share their feelings.

Dr Diane Austin renowned vocal Psychotherapist has spent the last 25 years combining psychology with vocal music therapy proving it one of the most effective ways to build a connection to one’s innermost self and to others.

Doctors specialising in trauma say a person's vocal qualities can, indeed, change after they experience an abusive incident or series of abuses in childhood . Voice problems are never entirely physical. 'It is unusual to find a completely psychological voice loss; usually it's a complicated combination of the physical and the psychological.

In my teaching experience over the last 10 years I have experience first hand.

How can emotional stress affect my voice?

The vocal tract which includes the larynx, (which houses the vocal folds/cords) and the pharynx (the area above the larynx often thought of as the throat) has a rich and complex nerve supply with input from both the Central Nervous System (CNS), which allows us voluntary control of movement for activities such as speaking or singing, and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which regulates the function of our internal organs such as blood pressure, heart rate, swallowing, gut activity and digestion.

At the base of our skull rests the longest cranial nerve, called the vagus nerve.

Its origin is in the brain stem and it spreads nerve fibers to the throat and upper body, and through these nerve fib­ers signals wander to and fro between the body and the brain. In short, the vagus nerve connects the brain to everything from the tongue, pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach and intestines to different glands that produce enzymes and hormones, influencing digestion, me­tabolism, and much more. This nerve is the sensory network that tells the brain what’s going on.

The vagus nerve controls muscles associated with speaking, swallowing, sucking and, most importantly, breathing. The stronger your vagus response or vagal tone is the stronger your body is at regulating blood glucose. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation Low vagal tone indicates stress and is characterized by anxiety, negativity, weak digestion, depression, and inflammation. Yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and breath work have a strong impact on vagal tone.

the total voice system (vocal chords, throat, diaphragm, lungs) is subject to the physical “fight-or-flight” effects of the sympathetic nervous system

singing greatly nourishes this wandering nerve and strengthens vagal tone. 

The ANS has three divisions, the parasympathetic, sympathetic and enteric systems. The parasympathetic system is our ‘rest and digest’ system, responsible for slowing heart rate, reducing blood pressure and increasing the digestive movements of the gut (peristalsis) when we are relaxed. It also increases the secretion of saliva and digestive juices.

The sympathetic nervous system is largely responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response and prepares the body for action. It increases heart rate and blood pressure, reduces peristalsis and decreases the amount of saliva and mucus produced.

The enteric nervous system is a mesh of nerves that serve the intestines, pancreas and gall bladder.

The Autonomic Nervous System is closely linked with the emotion centres in the brain and this connection helps explain why, for example, we are able to recognise when our loved ones are upset or angry from subtle changes in facial expression, body posture and, of course, tone of voice.

When we perceive something as threatening or upsetting the body reacts rapidly, preparing for action and producing physical changes that we are all familiar with. These may include:

Teachers, actors and singers - people whose livelihoods depend on their voices - are often particularly at risk from psychosomatic disorders.

Sometimes the pressure of performing will create emotional stress which will strangle the voice. Studies have shown that sound enters our physical bodies directly , before been processed by the brain unlike vision.

Voice loss associated with emotional distress is usually termed a ‘psychogenic’ voice disorder. However, clinicians vary in their use of terms and other terms that may be used include ‘conversion’ aphonia/dysphonia, or occasionally ‘functional’ aphonia/dysphonia. The individual adopts the voice disorder as a coping mechanism to deal with emotional distress but it is not a process under their voluntary control at the time. While most people with psychogenic dysphonia are aware they are stressed, others are not. Where they are unaware the diagnosis will come as a complete surprise and be hard to believe.

What can be done to help?

Speech and Language Therapy:


Counselling/Psychotherapy: Sometimes the emotional aspects need professional help from a Counsellor, Psychologist or Psychotherapist.

Manual Therapy/Laryngeal Massage:

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