Mindfulness, Turning Fear and Unpleasantness into Fluency

Diane Constantino is a member of the Sweeping Heart Zen sangha and a fluency specialist at The Center for Stuttering Therapy at Boston University.  In her inaugural  guest post here at sweepingheartzen.org, Diane writes about how she and her profession use mindfulness-based therapies to help people who stutter free themselves from the clutches of “shenpa.”  What’s shenpa?  Most of us face some version of it everyday.  Diane skillfully fills us in on the nuts and bolts of mindfulness and shenpa below.

Mindfulness and Stuttering Therapy

As a speech therapist who specializes in working with individuals who stutter, I have been absolutely delighted to see mindfulness meditation coming to the fore in my profession. Over the years I have dabbled with teaching some of my clients to meditate and I’m finding more and more encouragement to introduce the benefits of mindfulness to them when it comes to improving their speech.

In fact, more and more fluency specialists like myself regularly offer mindfulness activities to help our clients overcome the discomfort, fear, and self-doubt that may accompany this disorder. Many people who stutter avoid interacting with others for fear of the penalty of stuttering, and may even choose a career that feels ‘safe’ because of low speech demands, rather than pursuing their calling. For them, mindfulness has so much to offer.

With Mindfulness training, we learn  “to quiet and strengthen our mind to see more clearly and act more skillfully…” ~Ellen-Marie Silverman, PhD

In addition to reducing stress, improving the quality of life, developing desirable relationships, and increasing health and happiness, mindfulness has a role in transforming the struggle and fear of stuttering to the ability to speak with greater ease and authenticity.

In her book, Mindfulness and Stuttering, Ellen-Marie Silverman, PhD (an experienced meditator and person who stutters) defines a realistic expectation that results from living mindfully as “a sense of self-mastery that comes from learning to quiet and strengthen our mind to see more clearly and act more skillfully…Doing so, we become increasingly confident. We live and speak with greater ease.”

One of the key concepts that I have found helpful to my clients is working with shenpa in order to skillfully manage the automatic “fight or flight” reactions that occur during unpleasant experiences – in this case, moments of stuttering.

Shenpa can be likened to an uncomfortable feeling we may have that things are not going as we wish. And so we grasp for pleasant experiences and resist the unpleasant at the cost of authentically and fully participating in life. The practice of staying with emotions and experiences we prefer to avoid, to even welcome them, is the focus.

Silverman states the following about working with shenpa: “standing toe-to-toe with the fears and the physical unpleasantness of stuttering for which we have fled for much of our lives, we apply our courage and curiosity to examine them.” Whereas, avoiding or resisting stuttering contributes to worsening the behaviors associated with it, this ability promises the kind of intentional relaxed awareness that generalizes to speaking with greater ease.

I am struggling. I gently release myself from struggling.

When practicing shenpa, the focus is on developing awareness of what occurs in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when stuttering, and then managing to stay with what is unpleasant or feared.

The mantra is: “I am struggling. I gently release myself from struggling.” Being with the experience, the person is free to relax and resolve the tension that unexpectedly takes over the ability to produce forward flow in their speech.

The context and attitude that accompanies applying mindfulness practices to the act of stuttering and the accompanying myriad of thoughts, feelings, and struggle behaviors, brings calm acceptance to the process of behavioral change. Practicing nonjudgmental awareness builds a solid base for speaking with greater ease.

It is okay to simply be ourselves just as we are.

No longer avoiding moments of stuttering or pushing to get words out, the essence of stuttering is discovered. A momentary inability to maintain forward flow of speech. As my meditation teacher says, it is simple, but it is not easy! We remind ourselves to bring patience, kindness, and self-appreciation to learning the practice of shenpa.

As therapists, we join our clients in this learning.

We realize, of course, that we are all very similar as human beings – we all seek happiness and ease in our lives. Those who stutter and those who don’t benefit from being somewhat calmer, feeling safer, more prepared to face what we fear, willing to allow things to be as they really are rather than working so hard to make them as we’d like them to be.

What a privilege to grow alongside these courageous, talented people! They have kept me inspired for the nearly 30 years that I have been a fluency therapist, and have helped me further deepen my own practice.

“When we are motivated by compassion and wisdom, the results of our actions benefit everyone.” ~Dalai Lama

And so, here at BU, we are welcoming a new approach to stuttering therapy: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy approach (see Russ Harris PSYCHOTHERAPY IN AUSTRALIA • VOL 12 NO 4 • AUGUST 2006) to address the unique challenges our clients face.

To help them realize the possibility of long lasting change, and the comfort of knowing it is okay to simply be ourselves just as we are. To say what you want to say when you want to say it whether you stutter on some words or not.

Here’s a link to the The Center for Stuttering Therapy at Boston University: bu.edu/sargent/centers_labs/center-for-stuttering-therapy/

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I hope you have a wonderful week!