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How Trauma Can Affect Your Voice

Woman holding her head in her hands

When a person loses their voice, an enormous sense of powerlessness, fear, and perhaps even grief may emerge – says Elisa Monti.

Elisa Monti is a PhD student in experimental psychology who is on a mission to cast light on the topic of voice loss and trauma through psychological research and her documentary: “You’ll Say Nothing”

We spoke to her in detail about what she has discovered through her work, and why it is relevant to everyone.

Social Dynamics Can Trigger Trauma

My interest in this topic began when I was in Musical Theatre school. I observed that some of the blocks I saw in performers did not seem completely ‘vocal’, but more psychological and perhaps originating from a very early phase of life.

During class, we would often be assigned a song by the professor and would take it in turns to perform in front of each other. I sometimes noticed a student who, otherwise sang well, would struggle in front of this particular teacher.

I thought there must be something going on at a deeper level that somehow blocked or stifled their voice. Potentially there were parental dynamics being re-enacted if the teacher reminded the student of their parent.

I always wondered, what is it about RIGHT NOW that is affecting their voice?

Metaphors Connect Mind and Body

I once met a woman who could not ‘swallow’ the fact that her daughter had a drinking problem. Interestingly, shortly after she developed a psychogenic swallowing disorder, meaning it had a psychological origin rather than physical one. You could see this as a clear connection.

Other metaphors include the word ‘tension’. There are ‘tensions’ in relationships so some believe there are ‘tensions’ in the body and/or voice.

Some may say that the loss of the voice could symbolize an embodiment of the loss they are experiencing in their life.

Events can Remind the Voice of Trauma

At times the voice problem can return with a reminder. I once met a patient who had seen her mother die and started suffering from vocal fatigue and voice loss after that.

At times her voice would disappear with reminders, such as her mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day.

Subtle Signs of Trauma

I am a firm believer that trauma has a relationship with the voice even if one does not develop a voice disorder. There is evidence that links trauma to body language that is not always noticed by observers.

A study showed that trauma survivors can send out body signals, which predatory people with psychopathic tendencies can pick up on.

If the body does that, does the voice do the same? We hypothesize that cues in the voice could follow the same trend, even if the voice is not pathologically hoarse or quiet.

What signals would the voice send out? And can we learn to make micro-adjustments to send out signals of confidence? These are hypotheses we soon will be testing.

The Power of Vocal Psychotherapy

Dr Diane Austin, the creator of Vocal Psychotherapy, has worked with patients whose voices became very “small” from trauma, or at least speak that way when they regress and the voice of the inner child comes out.

Her voice-based model of music therapy has effectively helped many. Putting one in touch with their true voice and true self (imagine how complex this can be) requires a professional like her.

Tune into Yourself and Your Voice

Singers have extra tools and ways of connecting to their voices that others may not have. Their voice is deeply entangled with their sense of self.

However, I would recommend you learn how to check in with your body and your feelings.

Most importantly to be gentle with yourself, both physically and emotionally.

You can watch Elisa’s full-length documentary about trauma and voice loss here: You’ll Say Nothing

Elisa MontiElisa Monti is a doctoral student in experimental psychology at The New School for Social Research. Her concentration is voice, specifically investigating the relationship between psychological trauma and acoustic measures of voice. Elisa is working as a Teaching Fellow and as a vocal psychotherapist at The New School.

  • Colleen Ream

    Oh my! So well done! Thank you for all of your hard work. I am a classic case and look forward to exploring this more.Glad to discover this site! If you need a subject, I’m open to chatting.

  • Tedi

    Ditto. The sucky part is I’ve been through this once before, now again 12 years later.

  • Steven

    I lost my wife 5 1/2 months ago. It was sudden, and I was highly traumatized. Since then my voice has been very wobbly. It isn’t so bad when speaking, but I am a singer/songwriter, and when I sing, it is atrocious. I have never had a wobbly voice, and I want my old voice back so I can get on with my life.

  • Nathaniel AnaKi Rodriguez

    Im sorry to hear. I want my old voice back too.