In Part 1, we explained what we mean by voice, how voice is produced and how to support children who are having voice difficulties. In this blog, we’ll be thinking about our own voices and how we can ensure that they remain healthy and working well.
We have all experienced times when we have had difficulties with our voice and it has not sounded quite right. If we’ve been on a night out and done a little bit too much singing or shouting, we often wake up the next morning with a rough sounding voice, or have no voice at all, but this quite quickly returns to normal. Another common time to experience difficulties with our voice is when we have a cold or throat infection, but again our voice quickly goes back to normal once we are feeling better. If our voice doesn’t go back to normal or we go through a prolonged period of time when it does not sound right for us, then this is a voice disorder.
Voice disorders are really common for teaching staff and over the course of their lifetime, 50-80% of teachers will experience voice difficulties. When we look at some of the main causes of voice disorder, this isn’t very surprising.
One of the main causes of voice disorder is overuse or misuse of the voice. This includes excessive talking, having to frequently raise your voice to be heard, for example above background noise, or frequently needing to shout. Another common cause is not giving the voice enough time to recover when it is not working well after a cold or throat infection. If the voice is pushed to work when it is not fully recovered, for example if we have to come back to work and continue in a role where we need to do a lot of talking, this causes further irritation and strain to the voice. We can develop an unhealthy pattern of pushing the voice too hard to get it to work.
Another common cause of voice disorder is anxiety and stress. We know that emotions don’t only affect our mind, they also cause a physical response in the body. When we are feeling stressed, worried, or anxious, this can affect our sleeping pattern, our skin, our gut and digestive system, and can cause aching in our body. In the same way, stress and anxiety can affect our voice by making our throat and the muscles used for producing voice tight, tense and strained. This means that our voice is unable to work effectively, and we may again develop an unhealthy pattern of pushing the voice too hard to get it to work for us. There can often be multiple factors affecting the voice. For example, a difficulty that started after a long period of vocal abuse often results in stress and anxiety due to worry about being able to rely on using the voice at work, which can then further affect the voice.
Most of us rely on our voice as our main way of communicating with our families, friends, colleagues and the children that we support. We use our voice every day without even thinking about it and would feel completely lost without it. This is why it is really important that we all look after our voice, so that it can continue to work at its best. This is particularly important for teaching staff who rely on their voices so much and are at greater risk for developing voice disorders. Here are some important tips to think about for maintaining a healthy voice:
- Look after the body – make sure that you drink enough water to keep hydrated, as the vocal folds are covered in mucus to help them keep working effectively. Drinking too much caffeine or alcohol and smoking all dry out the vocal folds and mean that they cannot work as effectively. Making sure that we get enough exercise and sleep also helps our bodies and our voice to be able to work at its best.
- Look after the mind – make time to ensure that you are looking after your mental wellbeing. Set aside time in the day to complete activities you enjoy that make you feel good. Use breathing techniques, relaxation exercises and mindfulness to take time to identify how you are feeling and to look after yourself.
- Think about how you are using your voice – noticing how you are using your voice during the day can help you to think about whether there are any changes you need to make. Are you one of those people who talks from the minute they wake up to the minute they go to bed – would setting aside a little time for quiet activities where you don’t need to use your voice be possible? Are you often having to push or strain your voice to be heard over a lot of background noise – can you lower the general noise level at school or at home so that you don’t need to do this as often? Are you shouting from room to room or across the classroom to communicate with someone – could you go to the person you want to speak to, rather than shouting to them? Could you use some amplification, like a microphone, in the classroom so that everyone can hear you, without having to push your voice?
- Avoid talking when you’re feeling angry – when we are feeling angry or frustrated, we tend to talk with a tight, constricted throat which puts pressure on the vocal folds. It is best to try and avoid doing this for long periods of time and to walk away from the situation and calm down, before trying to tackle it (although this is easier said than done). Blowing out air, like a kettle releasing steam, can help to move the vocal folds apart and reduce restriction in the throat.
- Avoid throat clearing – if your throat is feeling irritated or tight, or you are recovering from a cold or throat infection, you can frequently get the feeling of needing to cough and clear your throat. The more we cough, the more we get the feeling and it can become a vicious cycle. Instead of coughing, if we try to take small sips of water, blow out air and/or sniff, this can help the vocal folds to move apart and feel less tight and irritated. Repeatedly coughing bangs the vocal folds together and increases irritation.
If you are experiencing difficulties with your voice that go on for longer than three weeks, we would advise that you speak to your GP about these difficulties. In very rare cases, a voice disorder can be the first sign of something more serious, so it is important to get this checked out. In most cases you may just need some help to identify the factors that are affecting your voice and support to get back to a healthy pattern of using the voice.