Learning to relax your voice is the key to keeping it healthy

Don

Stressing your voice on a regular basis can damage the vocal cords, leading to permanent hoarseness. Furthermore, when the rest of your body is stressed, your voice can suffer.

Stress can be thought of in two ways. Firstly, the emotional response to a situation can manifest itself in stress if there is a feeling of lack of control. This is the “fight-or-flight” response, which prepares your body for action. Whichever you choose, your voice may come into play. Shouting may increase the aggression, which is helping you fight, or tell that you are going to flee. Second, you can consciously choose to place your body under stress in order to maximize its response, for example when running a race or when singing an opera.

These are both examples of physiological stress, a condition that occurs when the body is asked to perform activities far outside of its regular functioning capacity. This is a situation that is often demanded of the voice—just think of the number of times in the past week that you have raised your voice louder than necessary in speech or in song—and it is harmful to the vocal cords.

Instant damage

Your vocal cords are highly sensitive in order to produce the range of sounds they do, and extreme stress can have an instant, and sometimes prolonged, effect on them.

Shouting down the house

When you shout with too much force, it is possible to damage the lining of your vocal cords, causing hoarseness. The muscles in your throat tighten, and breathing becomes shallower in reaction to the excessive tension. This results in more effort being exerted to recover your voice, which can make it worse. If the voice isn’t given time to recover from stress—if you shout while your voice is still hoarse and your throat is still sore—you risk damaging the vocal cords still further. If you find yourself regularly shouting in anger or frustration, getting help to figure out what is stressing you makes more sense than risking your voice. People who regularly stress their voices may need speech therapy to train them away form voice habits.

Clearing your throat

A lot of people cough and clear their throats when they are stressed. If this is done too aggressively, it can also result in vocal cord damage. It is much better to try and relax your throat by swallowing and having sips of water instead.

Reflux

Stress can also result in acid reflux, in which stomach acid flows up towards the larynx, causing discomfort and sometimes a voice disorder. To reduce reflux, give your body enough time to digest food properly before rushing around, try not to eat hurriedly, and don’t eat immediately before going to bed.

Sounding stressed

A stressed voice may sound more aggressive, inviting negative reactions from others, and breathing may become shallower as the pace of speaking gets quicker. If you can take the tension out of your voice, you’re more likely to breathe better, produce more efficient speech, and get a better response.

Long-term damage

Sometimes voice damage is the result of continuing an action without observing signals telling you to relax. These include hoarseness and sore throats, as well as tension in your body.

Be career wise

Certain jobs carry greater risks for the voice than others. The traditional regimental sergeant major obviously stresses his voice on a daily basis, but singers, teachers, lawyers, aerobics instructors, and politicians also regularly risk voice damage.

The problem is compounded in some cases by environmental factors: the atmosphere is many classrooms, for example, is dry, which is bad for the throat. In addition, many public buildings are built without the advice of an acoustician, so professional may have to fill a space that was not designed for a single human voice. Noise, too, makes matters worse. Studies have shown that we tend to raise our voices by about three decibels for every 10-decibel increase in ambient noise level. Because the noise level in a kindergarten class can be as high as 80 decibels, it is not surprising that teachers suffer from voice problems.

If you belong to one of these at-risk groups, it’s important to be especially kind to your larynx.

Careful karaoke

Singers are prone to voice problems because of the extra effort they use in the throat when singing. Professional singers are taught to warm their voices before rehearsing or performing, singing mid-range notes before gradually working toward those at the top and bottom of their ranges, and practicing scales and arpeggios, as well as breathing exercises to help in efficient, unrestrained sound production.

Amateurs, however, may not take such care with their voices. Vocal difficulties often arise from a poorly produced loud voice, intended to fill a bar or concert hall. Such sounds can easily result in bruised vocal cords. It is wise not to sing without warming the voice as described above, especially if you have a sore throat, because you will be vulnerable to inflammation of the vocal cords.

To club or not to club

If you are going out to a club or concert where the music is loud, accept that you are not going to be able to chat, too. Average noise levels are too loud to shout over. In venues where smoking is not banned, be aware that the smokiness will also affect your throat and voice.

Unclench that jaw

If you are overly tense, you may grind your teeth at night, resulting in a clenched jaw. This is another very common cause of vocal tension, making the voice sound “held back” or muffled. If you find yourself swallowing sounds and having to make an extra effort to compensate for not being heard, you may need to take steps to undo the tension.

Be socially wise

Two of the most common “social stress relievers” —smoking and alcohol—dry out the voice and irritate the larynx, resulting in deepening hoarseness, and other changes. In the long run, this ages the voice.

Keep lubricated

Stress can result in neglecting to eat when you need to or not drinking enough fluids throughout the day, which results in dehydration and a dry throat. (Take care of yourself with these natural remedies for a sore throat.)

How to look after your voice

  • If your job involves talking a lot, make sure you have quiet periods in the day.
  • Don’t talk above loud background noise if you don’t have to.
  • If you find you are often shouting as a way of dealing with anger, consider counselling or assertiveness training.
  • Don’t overdo spicy foods; they can cause laryngeal irritation.
  • Steer clear of chemicals that might irritate your throat, such as aerosol sprays and household cleaning products.
  • Avoid smoking and excessive drinking.
  • Don’t sit hunched over your computer keyboard or desk. This puts a strain on your neck muscles, which are important in voice production.
  • Don’t spend too long in cold, dry air. The larynx likes to be wet and warm. Steam inhalation will thin out mucus trapped in the nose and throat.

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Adapted from Your Body Your Health: The Ears, Nose & Throat, Reader's Digest

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