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Mindfulness & Stuttering: Using Eastern Strategies to Speak With Greater Ease, by Ellen-Marie Silverman

Carolyn Cheasman, Oli Cheadle | 01.12.2013

Book coverBook review by Carolyn Cheasman

‘Mindfulness’, put simply, is a meditation practice to help pay attention to experiences as they occur in the present moment, without judgement. As someone who has done a lot of work exploring the relevance of mindfulness for people who stammer, I was excited to be given this book to review. Ellen-Marie Silverman is a person who stammers and an American Speech and Language Therapist with her own long-standing mindfulness practice. From the beginning, her willingness to share her own experience comes across, both as someone who stammers and as a mindfulness practitioner, and this is one of the book’s great strengths.

The book gives a clear description of what mindfulness is, followed by a detailed exploration of practices which have particular relevance to stammering and that help to promote change. Silverman’s description of mindfulness is neither too simplistic nor overly complex, and as someone who practises mindfulness, I found her discussion of working with some of its challenges personally really helpful. Unlike many introductions to mindfulness, she does not shy away from using some Tibetan terms. This may be a barrier for some people but she does give easily accessible explanations as to their meaning. A glossary of terms at the end might be a useful addition. She stresses that the practice is secular.

Silverman started to practise mindfulness to manage stress and only later went on to recognise how much it could benefit her in relation to her speech. She elaborates on various practices including ‘shenpa’. Shenpa refers to the feeling that pushes us into a ‘fight or flight’ reaction, leading us to tighten or shut down when we anticipate or experience something we don’t like. She describes the relevance of this to stammering, highlighting the emotional vicious circles that many who stammer will recognise. Shenpa practice helps us to ‘be with’ difficult experiences more easily. She writes, “by staying with what makes us uneasy or even frightened, we learn to relate more skilfully to the root of our problem - fear - to move in a new direction” (p45). Silverman richly describes how mindfulness helped her work with her own avoidance. Many mindfulness practices involve paying attention to the breath and Silverman comments on the specific relevance of this to working on stammering.

Mindfulness belongs to the ‘vipassana’ group of meditation practices, which aim to develop insight as well as concentration. The author describes clearly and personally how the practice helped her develop greater insight into her thoughts and a different perception of the dynamic aspects of fear. She also explores the ways in which mindfulness can help us develop greater kindness and compassion towards ourselves. The cultivation of these qualities can be most helpful to people who stammer, who can often be very self-critical.

Silverman concludes with a comprehensive resource list to help those who might want to take up the practice. The book would be suitable for those new to mindfulness and also has much to offer those with some knowledge of the area. My only criticism is that the writing would have benefited from some tighter editing. This is a minor point though, and I can whole-heartedly recommend that anyone interested in working with the mind and body to help with stammering, stress or life in general, reads the book. It contains great wisdom.

Carolyn is teaching a ‘Mindfulness for people who stammer’ evening course in summer 2014 at City Lit. For further details, email carolyn.cheasman@citylit.ac.uk or phone 020 7492 2578.


Speech and language therapy student Oli Cheadle writes:

Many of us have strategies to help with stammering but it can often be difficult to remember these when in the midst of a stressful speaking situation. Silverman suggests that mindfulness might allow us to deconstruct and better understand what can be an overwhelming experience.

This book is a deeply personal account of how mindfulness has brought about a change in Silverman’s speech and how she relates to her own stammering. She describes how it can help us pick apart the experience of speaking – separating the stammer from the feelings and behaviours we have habitually come to associate with our stammer.

One exercise I found interesting was her suggestion that you imagine yourself speaking in a difficult situation (ordering in a restaurant, for example) and observe the effect this has on your body. From her experience, such situations are accompanied by the following physical sensations: “My throat constricts, my heart rate increases and my muscles tense.” Through meditation and exercises such as this, we learn to watch how the mind and body react to stammering. By understanding our stammer we become aware of the physical behaviours we have developed that exacerbate it and are therefore able to begin changing them. 

By accepting and mindfully experiencing our stammer in the short-term, we move to a situation where stammering no longer affects our speech and lives to such an extent in the long-term. As Silverman observes, welcoming stammering into our lives is, paradoxically, the “surer way to dissolve it.”

Mindfulness & Stuttering...(published by CreateSpace) is available to buy at http://amzn.to/HpBsLX.

From Speaking Out Winter 2013 page 23.