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Too anxious to talk? Selective mutism could be the problem
Posted in Anxiety - 0 Comments

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting 40 million American adults every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

Phobia is also a kind of anxiety disorder, and one of the most common phobias is the fear of public speaking. People who are afflicted with this disorder often make presentations with an unsteady voice or sweating palms. In some cases, they freeze up entirely. Selective mutism, a rare anxiety condition, is much more severe. Though a rare disorder that commonly occurs in childhood, selective mutism can also affect adults.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA), selective mutism usually appears during childhood. A child with this disorder may speak perfectly well at home or with friends but in certain environments – such as when called on to answer a question – he might be unable to speak. A child with this disorder may also be extremely shy and have additional anxiety disorders like social phobias.

According to the ASLHA, some of the symptoms of selective mutism are:

  • Consistent inability to speak in particular social situations, such as school.
  • Inability to speak isn’t linked to communication disorders, such as stuttering.
  • Periods of not being able to speak persist for at least a month.
  • Inability to speak isn’t due to a lack of fluency in the language.

ASLHA says that various methods can help treat selective mutism. Often, techniques like stimulus fading – where a new person is slowly introduced to a child as they talk to someone they’re comfortable with – is used. There is no one way to treat selective mutism, and interventions would depend on the particular case.

As for causes, ASLHA says children with selective mutism may have an anxiety disorder, self-esteem issues or problems related to hearing, speech and language. Selective mutism is also somewhat rare; the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders reports that the disorder affects less than 1 percent of patients.

Selective mutism can also strike adults

Though common in children, selective mutism can also strike adults. It is often difficult to accept the idea that a condition can prevent an adult from speaking. People usually assume that such individuals are simply choosing to be silent. In 2015, a study by the University of Huddersfield (UH) in the United Kingdom examined the question of selective mutism being a choice. 

As part of the study, the researchers interviewed five subjects. Four of them were young adults with selective mutism and were interviewed via instant messaging online. One was the study’s co-author, UH student Aaron Walker, who has overcome selective mutism.

In the transcripts, the subjects vividly described the sensations of isolation, regret and awkwardness the disorder causes. However, the researchers also found that the subjects described feelings of dissociation and a lack of control over their inability to speak.

Sam, a 21-year-old subject, said that his self-mutism seemed to be driven by the reactions of others that he faced, when he was in school: “When I was at secondary school, because no one expected me to say anything it became kind of impossible to say anything, like, other kids just avoided me.”

The latest study was different from an earlier one on selective mutism, published in the European Journal of Special Needs Education in 2007. In that study, which interviewed six adults who had dealt with selective mutism in their childhood, the subjects said that they consciously refused to talk, describing themselves as “strong willed.”

Seeking treatment

Trauma is one of the leading causes of anxiety. Sovereign Health’s treatment center in Chandler, Arizona, specializes in treating women aged 18 and up, especially women who are survivors of abuse and trauma. Our treatment center and houses are located on quiet residential streets in suburban Phoenix, giving our patients a welcoming, calm and safe place to work on their problems and move into a happier, healthier life. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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