There’s an Anxiety Disorder That Renders People Unable to Speak

Woman With Hand Over Her Mouth
Photo: Underwood Archives/©Underwood Archives

At some point, you’ve probably experienced some nervous moment that left you at a loss for words (unless you, like me, sometimes react to anxiety-inducing moments by talking entirely too much). But people with something called selective mutism experience this to an extreme degree. 

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that causes people to freeze up and turn silent in certain stressful situations — school is the most frequently reported one, as the disorder often pops up by age 5, when kids start attending preschool or kindergarten. It’s most common in children, but it can sometimes linger into adulthood. In a recent paper published in Qualitative Research in Psychology, a pair of psychologists at the University of Huddersfield interviewed a handful of adults with selective mutism to find out more about this largely unexplored condition, and their findings are broken down over at BPS Research Digest today.

Here are some of the highlights from those interviews:

Hannah, 26:

It isn’t me. I know who I am and I’m not shy or quiet, maybe that makes it harder. When I’m with my parents I can be myself but around everyone else it’s like it [selective mutism] takes over. I can get the words in my head but something won’t let me say them and the harder I try the more of a failure I feel like when I can’t.

Sam, 21:

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. Even the teachers would treat me differently. In History class the teacher would just skip past me when we had to read things out. On one hand it helped, I wouldn’t have been able to talk anyway.

Ben, 30:

It’s like that scene from Scrooge where he looks through the window and he can see people having fun being together. I’ll always be stuck outside looking in.

Lily, 23:

A lot of the time I worry about things I haven’t done, that I should have. [Interviewer: What kind of things?]. “All the things normal people do. I could have gone to university, I always did well at school. But it was different there, teachers knew about my problem. Maybe I’d have been able to get a job and be in a relationship. A lot of the time I imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t have selective mutism.

Overall, the interviews suggest that people with selective mutism very much want to speak, but something inside is keeping them from doing so. This runs contrary to what has been previously proposed about selective mutism — the authors of a 2007 study argued that these individuals’ silence is the result of their “conscious determination not to speak.” 

Interestingly, Aaron S. Walker — one of the co-authors on this paper — once struggled with selective mutism himself, and notes that he never could’ve imagined he’d one day be able to give lectures in front of large classes of students. He writes, “even small everyday things such as asking for a train ticket or ordering a meal are reminders that selective mutism can be overcome.”

The Anxiety Disorder That Renders People Mute