4 Reasons as to Why You Lose Your Voice
There tend to be four main drivers of occupational voice loss; they aren’t exclusive but they are the most common reasons in my profession. They are also almost non-existent in healthy children which is far from a coincidence as to why children rarely misplace their voice.
Like children, speaking should not be effortful, but fluid. Not painful, but joyful.
The Issue is Not Occupational
Clients ranging from business analysts, meditation teachers, to QA techs have come to me for this issue that debilitates their ability to present, guide, or coach. Some occupations demand them to talk all day, while others ask for merely an hour, but the pain, or tightness, arises nonetheless. When it comes to voice loss, what you do for a living matters little but rather:
How and why you do it.
I will come to “how” later, but what of “why you do it”? First, let’s get one thing clear: the role of stress on the voice has major repercussions on vocal physiology and is typically the cause of laryngeal muscle dysphonia, the severe muscle tightness around the throat.
An occupation that is causing you symptoms of stress, or anxiety, is likely keeping your body in a highly aroused state. To accommodate increased arousal, more oxygen is required and the body’s mechanism to absorb more oxygen is then to increase the body’s capacity to consume more air.
Your heart and breath rate increase and your throat enlarges; specifically, the vocal folds are pulled apart to increase the space between them (known as the Glottis) for more air to pass through to the lungs. On top of that, the secondary respiratory muscles surrounding your throat, such as the sternocleidomastoid, are recruited to help lift your rib cage to increase your thoracic air capacity. These muscles tire easily, especially when they are also recruited to help talk! The vocal folds, recruited now to keep your throat open, are working double time when also required to help you speak. In fact, they are working against the body’s defense mechanism; the torsion of keeping them wide open only to close them when speaking becomes painful due to the antagonism between the muscles responsible for those jobs.
All this is happening while you are typing away to meet your deadline and you don’t even notice it.
Play, the one thing most children have in common, has a funny way of being incompatible with stress. When one is highly aroused (governed by the sympathetic nervous system) the parasympathetic nervous system that governs the rest state is inhibited, but the crux is that “play” lives in this autonomic realm; indeed, so does the ability to listen, empathize, and communicate. Fight or flight helped us survive, but it did not arise to help us forge relationships nor communicate.
Communication, a key feature of the neocortex, is a later evolutionary vestige, where the cacophony of fine muscular instruments used to speak are governed by certain myelinated motor vagal efferents that are only innervated when the body is in the parasympathetic state and inhibited when in a state of stress!
Introducing “play” is a better choice at managing stress, compared to intellectualizing it away; but “play” doesn’t have to mean rolling on the floor, it can also be understood as creativity with a purpose, or having a “why”.
“Animals only play freely when their other basic needs are satisfied. When an animal is starved or stressed, play diminishes”. The same can be said of the voice.
Introducing a “why” into your work life can help you to find purpose. By introducing “play”, the body adjusts, and once the body adjusts, the mind adjusts. It is the same process by which the body relaxes at the touch of a friend, by hearing a reassuring voice, or sleeping to the sound of a lullaby. The body’s senses, and not just the intellectual mind, have an exceptional influence on the state of your wellbeing, so it is worthwhile to create an environment that causes your neuroception to perceive it as one of safety and play.
There is a symbiosis between the body and mind, so much so that they must no longer be thought of as seperate entities but rather as existing in a relational feedback loop. Affecting the body, can affect the mind, and affecting the mind can affect the body.
Having a “why”, or creating one, is as helpful for your voice, as it is to roll around on the ground laughing. A “why” could be as simple as “how can I become better at my job?” Having a purpose breeds a feeling of safety and joy, and if one feels safe, then the mind is able to fire the motor neurons responsible for complex speech and the body attunes itself to the highly elaborate demands of social engagement such as empathy.
As a rule: the body and mind cannot achieve the complex demands of social engagement when stressed. In order to be able to physiologically communicate with empathy and active listening, one must be in a relaxed state.
I point you to Vicktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” to see the importance of purpose on the body. However, this will require some deep thought, and is no easy task; it may mean forcing you to step outside of your comfort zone or taking initiative. At the end of the day, inviting a passion for your work will not only adjust your body and mind but influence your voice in ways that are countless to comprehend.
Some of you may have no choice to avoid stress in your occupation, so let us see what else you can do.
The Issue is Not Duration
Here, children own the benchmark. Babies can cry for hours, and young kids don’t have a stop button. They can go on and on. But, you, too, were once a child.
So what happened…
A client who taught yoga and meditation came to me because she suffered from laryngeal dysphonia. Her job was not stressful, and she did not carry any postural deficiencies (which have a part to play in voice defects). Her classes only lasted for an hour, and perhaps had three of them throughout the day. So, why was she losing her voice when leading a class?
The issue was born of unexpressed grief over a broken relationship…
There are two red flags here:
- Her body was noticeably in a flux state switching from high arousal, due to the anxiety and fear of the pain that accompanies grief, to moments of respite.
- Her breathing was constricted and held within her chest. Meaning that the diaphragm was not contracting efficiently to create greater air capacity.
Humans have an instinctual response to fear, we hold our breath and brace our core. The held-breath builds in the body what is called sub-glottal air pressure which helps fuel explosive movement, required for the impending lunge aside as the jaguar springs from among the ferns. It also helps stabilize our core when we contract our abdominal musculature, lift heavyweight, and protect our organs in case of impact. These things are helpful for survival but not for communicating.
If you don’t want to cry, you simply brace your core and hold your breath. It’s why crying tends to be in sputters and gasps and why your stomach constricts as if someone is about hit you.
So the rule is: if you don’t want to feel too deeply, don’t breathe too deeply; because, if you do, the barriers you built to survive begin to collapse.
My client's breathing had become shallower during this period of grief, to help avoid the immense feeling of loss and to be able to carry on with her work. But talking demands efficient breathing. If you are not allowing your diaphragm to contract by releasing your abdomen, thoracic capacity is reduced. If your floating ribs are held tightly in a brace, they cannot expand. If you’re stressed the secondary respiratory muscles are forced to do the breathing for you because the primary muscles are locked, and then you are only breathing on one cylinder instead of ten.
The teacher had to learn how to breathe again and bring about homeostasis by facing that which made her anxious. The feeling of loss. Make no doubt about it, the feeling of intense or unknown emotion is a frightening experience that kicks us into fight or flight mode as we perceive it as a threat. This is where getting to know your “shit” becomes important as it affects every breath you take throughout your day.
The keystone of speaking is efficient breathing — if your engine isn’t firing, neither will your voice. Duration of speaking is not the cause of voice loss, it is the sparesness of efficiency.
The rules for efficient breathing that lead to healthy voice work can be found here: What Crocodiles and Humans Have in Common.
The problem is that if a breathing pattern has been maintained for a prolonged period of time it can become a habit; indeed, habits are difficult to break, especially when it is programmed into the very fibers of your musculature.
The Issue is not Volume
Singing is effectively shouting-on-pitch, and singers can sing all day — every day. So, how are they, like children, not losing their voice?
Firstly, singing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, meaning that the body has engaged the required outputs for social cohesion and limited the body’s responses that oppose it (fight or flight). Therefore, “play” is symbiotic with singing and is typically why people look so damn happy doing it!
Research has also shown that singing releases greater amounts of endocannabinoids than exercise, the hormone that gives you a natural high feeling. So, if you’re feeling down, singing, like “play”, can help your mood.
Secondly, singing also demands that your breath becomes measured in what you need to say (or sing). It requires skillful control of active inspiration and exhalation, and requires a larger amount of oxygen, meaning that the respiratory muscles are having to expand further to create larger thoracic volume.
Singing engages the social engagement system, inhibits fight or flight, increases thoracic capacity, and invites flexibility to the primary respiratory muscles due to active respiration.
Singing puts to sleep any notion that volume has a part to play in voice loss, but it is something that you find children do continuously throughout the day in all cultures, whether in a class or quietly humming to themselves as they build a blanket fort.
So the rule is: introducing humming or singing back into your life is something that can take you from the pits of misery to the heights of paradise. It is a wonderful method of warming up the voice before speaking.
However, both singing and talking can still be painful if these last two elements are missing: good posture, and, good habits.
The Issue is not Permanent
As we know, children are the benchmark for how we should speak. The fact that we were all children once, and then somewhere along the line, lost the freedom within our voice, does not allude to an actual loss of “something” but rather to the change or adaptation of the voice for better or worse.
Personal habits are built to help us survive and make sense of the world. But when a habit is created due to an inability to cope with an external threat they typically come at the expense of something else. Afraid of revealing too much vulnerability in their voice, one may choose to filter their voice with a monotone, but they lose color and variation in pitch. If one feels like they are never heard, they may speak a little louder than what the circumstances demand, or, more typically, become quieter, making it difficult to create meaningful relationships… These changes persist for years and have a multitude of changes on the vocal physiology that number too many to list here (read here to understand how vocal habits could be sabotaging your voice). It is these detrimental vocal habits like clenching the jaw, speaking without breathing, and shouting with sharp glottal attacks that are the leading causes of voice loss.
Habits, however, with the right guidance can be transformed. It is wise to ask yourself: what habits have you created to protect yourself at the expense of a free voice? Are these habits still serving you, or is time to let them go?
The Issue is Not Simply Phonation
Children possess a neutral posture, don’t have injuries, and haven’t been impacted by the effects of aging — moving and speaking are effortless for them.
Now, voice, or phonation, is simply a cause of vibration occurring between the vocal ligaments and is essentially also effortless due to a physics principle at play. The vocal folds lengthen or shorten to determine higher or lower pitch respectively and they vibrate by a process known as the Myoelastic Theory of Phonation, underpinned by the Bernoulli principle. Simply, a column of air is forced upwards by your respiratory muscles due to diminishing thoracic capacity; this creates an imbalance of air pressure with high pressure beneath the closed vocal folds and low pressure above. Given that high pressure always moves towards low pressure, the folds burst open, and due to the cyclical exchange of air pressure states, the folds are brought back together again in an undulating motion (see below).
Saying “ahh” for one second would have repeated this process 120–200 times. Due to this principle, the method of phonation is relatively simple, where a small amount of air channeled upward can release a large sound, and if allowed to flow freely, gives one the ability to speak at ease. The obstructions that can hamper this process are already known to us, such as breathing and vocal habits, but posture too has its part to play.
Maintaining the normal curvature of the spine is important due to the knock-on effects it has on the body to maintain balance and enough flexibility to create thoracic capacity. Tiny variations in muscles used to balance the neck or pelvis that are out of alignment can limit the range and expression of the voice by reducing the range of motion of primary respiratory muscles.
This is especially important due to the requirement of the neck being kept free of unnecessary tension, given its proximity to the vocal folds. The head when speaking should sit effortlessly atop the occipital joint, but if the chin or head is jutted forward, it closes off the vocal tract ever so slightly due to the tightening of the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid, meaning you need to push harder to get air through the vocal folds. Jutting the head forward typically happens if you feel the need to “push” or “force” your point across, and it is usually accompanied by a change in posture to denote extra-linguistic cues — body language.
If one must force a point, don’t diminish your presence by jutting the head forwards, as it will only diminish your capacity to speak. The voice demands a flexible and stable posture, anything that takes your weight away from your center of mass means that other stabilizing muscles are then recruited to help maintain balance. For instance, your head weighs 15kg so that when your head is no longer balanced on the occipital joint, stabilized by the spinal column, the neck muscles, and typically those surrounding your vocal folds, are recruited to maintain balance along with an anterior shift in the tilt of the pelvis. This can be considered non-required extra effort — what you are looking for is the art of no effort…
As a rule: a free voice requires that the body be positioned in a way that keeps its many parts, or weight, closest to its center of mass. The normal curvature of the spine does this for us beuatifully, so it is in your best interest, that when speaking, to ensure that your postures integrity is not broken.
The four reasons:
- Lack of Play
- Chronic Stress
- Unhealthy Habits
- Poor Posture
Becoming aware of your body language and how your posture changes in the face of rising emotion will take patience and mindfulness. But if you’re coming home every day with a sore voice you owe it to yourself to investigate what you could do better.
You can begin by making sure you don’t lock your knees when you present, that your chin remains neutrally levelled, and that you don’t suck your stomach in but instead allow your ribs to expand like wings.
Imitating children can be a helpful way of reclaiming your voice, but what is better than that, is to understand what you have at your disposal now and how you can best use your body to assist your voice. Going back to an idealized infantile state demands a flexibility you will never be able to reclaim but you can lose habits that aren’t serving you any more to create more productive ones. It just takes a little patience and awareness of what your body is doing when speaking, and, investigating how you react to stress.
If you have experienced complete voice loss please see a registered professional.