How Changing Your Self-Image Can Help You to Deal with Anxiety and Stuttering

anxiety and stuttering

If you’re a person who stutters, or stammers then you may have noticed one thing – a link between anxiety and stuttering, i.e. before you actually stutter, you feel anxious about the prospect of speaking. This article contains an adaptation of the famous Swish Pattern from the field of NLP, which you can use to create a new self-image to help you deal with anxiety and stuttering. Before I explain the technique, I’m going to explain the link between anxiety and stuttering using an example.

An Example of the Link between Anxiety and Stuttering

Michelle is a person who stutters. One particular situation where she usually stutters is when she says her friend Dina’s name. Michelle has been analysing how she feels just before attempting to say Dina’s name. She has been monitoring her thoughts—the images and movies going on in the screen of her mind. When she thinks about saying Dina’s name, she realises she is remembering previous times she stuttered when saying her friend’s name. She is creating horror films on the screen of her mind and picturing herself really struggling to say Dina’s name. This makes Michelle feel extremely anxious and sends terror down her spine.

The Stimulus-Response Model to help explain Anxiety and Stuttering

Anxiety and stuttering can be explained using the stimulus-response model. For instance, let’s say a challenging speaking situation for you is talking to your boss because you usually stutter when you do so. You dread this type of situation. Just thinking about it sends shivers down your back. In this case, you have created an unhelpful response (which is experiencing dread, worry etc.) to the stimulus, which is a thought you have in your mind about speaking to your boss. This thought triggers anxiety, which you feel in your body. Usually this results in you avoiding speaking to your boss whenever you can.

How to Change Your Self-Image – An Adaptation of the Swish Pattern

In the following exercise, you will create a powerful and empowering self-image so that when you think of a difficult speaking situation, you will send your brain to your new self-image so that you feel confident and motivated to go into the speaking situation, instead of avoiding it.

First, read each step in the exercise a few times and follow the example of a hypothetical person (Garry) to give you an idea of what to do. After this, come back to the beginning to do the exercise yourself.

Step 1 – Identify the Challenging Speaking Situation to be Changed

Think of a speaking situation which causes you to feel anxious. Try and think of a speaking situation which will be happening soon, either in few days or a few weeks’ time. The negative emotion(s) you experience can be referred to as a state.

I will talk you through this with an example. Garry is a person who stutters and he has been invited to a wedding in a week’s time. Garry finds it difficult to go to weddings because he worries he will stutter when speaking to other guests.

Think of your own difficult, upcoming speaking situation and write it down.

Step 2 – Identify the Image of this Speaking Situation Experience

In this step, you get a full image of your difficult speaking situation on the screen of your mind. This is called the ‘cue picture’, which triggers the feelings of anxiety inside you. Whatever your difficult speaking situation you want to change is, imagine yourself there. You can either imagine a previous experience where you were in a similar speaking situation, or imagine one which will happen in the future. Identify what sounds and feelings are in the picture. Identify the brightness, distance and colour.

Using Garry’s wedding example, in this step he gets an image in his mind of a wedding. It is a wedding he went to last year. Inside it, he is looking out of his own eyes and he can see other guests sitting on chairs. The picture is in colour. He also sees men standing around who he knows. Some of them are extended family members. Others are family friends. The overall picture is clear and the other people in it are close to him. He is worried about chatting with others around him because he is afraid he might stutter. This image creates anxiety in his body.

Do something similar for you own difficult speaking situation. Once you have got such an image on the screen of your mind, notice the negative feelings it creates in you. After you have done this, mentally put this image to one side and move onto the next step.

Step 3 – Develop a Desired Self-Image Picture

What would your desired self-image look, sound and feel like? This would be a self-image where you spoke confidently and without fear. Create your new picture on the screen of your mind and give it visual characteristics and add any sounds and feelings to it. Create a picture of this you that would no longer become anxious about stuttering. Make this image as compelling as possible and keep adjusting it, by changing its colour and any sounds and feelings in it, until it is very attractive.

Consider the following questions to help you create such an image. If you no longer had this type of response to this particular speaking situation, how would you see yourself as being different? What would be the value of changing this way of being? What would it mean about you?

For instance, for this step, Garry imagines the new him who would have no problem going to weddings and speaking to other guests. He can see himself standing tall and proud, smiling a lot and he feels confident at a wedding. He is dressed smartly. At the wedding, Garry is confidently chatting with his family members and family friends. He can see himself having fun and he is feeling really good about himself.

Now, you do something similar and create a picture of the powerful and confident you. Keep making changes to the characteristics of the picture until it really compels you and draws you in. Stay on this step as long as you need to before moving onto the next one.

Step 4 – Link the Two Pictures

Begin with the ‘cue picture’ of the speaking situation that triggers the anxiety in you and make it big and bright.

Into the lower left corner of that picture put a small, dark image of the second picture – the desired you for whom this speaking situation is no problem.

At this point you are entertaining two images in your mind. You are seeing the world from your own eyes in the ‘cue picture’ and seeing the empowered you in the tiny dot in the lower left corner. You are looking out of your own eyes in the first picture and dissociated (you can see yourself) in the second.

Using Garry’s example, he is now seeing two images in his mind. He is looking out of his own eyes into to the image of him at the wedding and feeling anxious about all the extended family and family friends around him. He can also see a little dot in the lower left corner of the confident him who is enjoying being at a wedding.

Do something similar for your two images.

Step 5 – Switch the Pictures

In this step, you will quickly allow the ‘cue picture’ to fade out far back into the distance and at the same time you will let the dot that contains the desired image to very quickly get bigger and brighter and closer. As the ‘cue picture’ gets smaller, darker and distant, let the new picture of you switch in and completely cover the screen of your mind. You do this very quickly in less than a second.

So, for Garry’s example, he quickly allows the image of him being very anxious at a wedding move backwards into the distance and fade away. At the same time, he allows the desired image of the confident him at a wedding to get bigger and quickly move closer to him so that it covers the screen of his mind. All of this takes a maximum of a second.

Do the same with your two images.

Step 6 – Switch 5 Times

After the first switch, close your eyes and blank out the screen of your mind. Alternatively, open your eyes and look around.

In Garry’s example, after he has done the first switch, he opens his eyes and looks around at the room he is in.

You too, close your eyes and blank out the screen of your mind then open your eyes and look around at your surroundings.

Now do it again. Go back to the linked pictures and repeat the process 5 times. After each switch, clear your mental screen either by closing your eyes or opening them and looking around you.

Step 7 – Test

Now test to see if this has worked. Allow yourself to think about the triggering ‘cue picture’ that sets off the anxiety about the prospect of stuttering. Notice what happens. As you think about the ‘cue picture’ does your mind now immediately go to the new picture of the confident you? If so, it has worked.

In Garry’s example, after he has switched his two images 5 times, he now allows himself to think of the first image of him feeling anxious at the wedding. As he does this, his mind now automatically switches to the image of the confident him who is enjoying himself speaking with other people at a wedding.

Do the test yourself now, and see if your mind automatically goes to the image of the new you who is very confident, instead of the image of you struggling in a speaking situation.

If you mind doesn’t go straight to the new you image go back to step 6 and switch both images 5 more times and then test again.


Bodenhamer, B.G. and Hall, L.M., 1999. The User’s Manual For The Brain Volume 1. Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Publishing.

NLP coaching for stuttering

Are you interested in how NLP can help you to overcome the anxiety of stuttering? You might want to take a look at the coaching I offer for people who stutter, or stammer.


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