12. Rehabilitate Your Hoarse, Strained Voice

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Chapter Summary

Submissive, and stressed mammals vocalize in a range that is artificially high. Over time, this strains the voice box, weakens the voice, and creates a permanent lump in the throat. Finding your relaxed vocal posture will reverse this, but is difficult because you cannot see or feel the vocal cords. Tense vocal muscles can be rehabbed by: exercising the muscles involved by holding a chin lock; compressing the muscles; muting the internal monologue; diaphragmatic speaking, singing, growling, and coughing exercises. The optimal, resting vocal posture is a relaxed glottis, breathing as if you are fogging up a glass.


Chapter 12: Unbracing Vocal Tension

The vocal cords are two membranes in the throat that are spread apart when breathing and pulled together for speech. When they are touching and air from an exhalation is forced through them, they vibrate giving rise to the voice. Sound is generated as a steady flow of air is chopped up by the cords into little puffs of sound waves. The vocal cords are manipulated by over a dozen different muscles within the voice box (larynx). We make speech sounds by contracting these muscles along with muscles of the tongue, mouth, lips and an entire wall of muscles extending from the voice box to the last molar. All of these muscles take on trigger points from intermittent bracing, and we brace them every time we feel even a little insecure.

Behavioral ecologists have long noted that dominance displays in mammals feature low-pitched vocalizations, and subordination displays feature high pitched squeals and whimpers. High pitch is seen in primates during juvenile play, submissive threat, appeasement and begging for food. Human voices also rise in pitch during stress and social submission. The frequency at which our vocal cords slap against each other raises when we ask for a favor, apologize, or attempt to show affection or goodwill. Negative emotion in general increases the pitch of the voice. When you are nervous or scared the muscles around the larynx tighten up on their own, translating to higher pitch. In Chapter 7 we saw how the grief system of the brain elicits reflexive distress vocalizations in mammals and birds. It ensures that lost babies call out for their mommies. Our own personal grief uses this ancient neural pathway to intensify vocal bracing.

Dominant voices stay the same or lower in pitch when finishing a sentence. Lowering intonation midsentence conveys resolute confidence. Submissive voices rise in pitch (upward inflection), as if they are asking a question, even when they are not. I used to talk in an artificially high voice to this affect, all the time. There were many friends that I would never speak to in my normal voice. By age 23 I could not speak in my “normal voice” even if I tried, and my voice become more destabilized by the year.

When you speak at an artificially high pitch, even for just a few minutes, it causes strain in your larynx. Accumulated over months and years the strain changes the resonance of your voice making it softer and higher. When tension in the vocal muscles affects the voice it is called muscle tension dysphonia. When this causes the larynx to become inflamed and painful it is called globus pharyngis, and when it is acutely inflamed it is called laryngitis. Few of us are formally diagnosed with these but we all have hoarseness and diminished voice from the self-imposed repetitive strain of these muscles.

Submissive, high-pitched vocalization mangled my voice. It wrenched my larynx, took all of the bass out of my voice, and ruined my singing ability. By the time I turned 30 I had lost the capability to modulate, and inflect that I had in my late teens. Having lost these vocal qualities influenced me talk less, which in turn influenced me to socialize less. My compromised laryngeal posture became so bad that I developed a permanent lump in my throat.

The constriction in my gullet affected my swallowing and I developed esophageal achalasia. The airway around my voicebox was so tight that I would choke at almost every meal. The following exercises and techniques completely resolved this problem, and after 10 years of enduring this, I no longer have any symptoms. The lump in my throat is gone, and the change in my voice was profound. Use the exercises in this chapter to get the frog out of your throat, and turn your croaking to crooning.

Diaphragmatic Vocalization

Most people hyperventilate when they speak, often needlessly doubling their air intake. Hyperventilation is uncomfortable, and is the root cause of fear of public speaking. Most of us speak in an even narrower tidal range than the one we breathe in. The breathing exercises from Chapters 3 and 11 will expand this range allowing you to continue speaking when your lungs are very empty. This adds depth to your voice. Any speech expert, or vocologist, will tell you that practicing diaphragmatic breathing is one of the best ways to achieve a better sounding voice.

Enter the terms “vocal cord endoscopy” into a video search engine to see the vocal cords in action. When you watch this exam you can hear the doctor giving the patient commands, about when to vocalize and when to be silent. You will observe multiple muscles in the throat that contract to modulate the voice. If you watch carefully you may notice the patient contract the muscles that pull the vocal cords together in preparation for speech, without actually making a vocalization. This will happen if the doctor interrupts the patient before they start vocalizing and you can see the musculature either stay tense or go back to rest. Seeing this will make you question how often you tense the muscles of your vocal apparatus in anticipation of speech, even when you are not speaking. In reality, we are constantly bracing our vocal musculature in neurotic preparation for high-pitched speech.

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A. Vocal cords; B. Vocal cords open; C. Vocal cords closed.

When you go to a loud party or concert and your voice is frazzled the next day it is not because you were yelling too loud. It is because you yelled with strained vocal cords, and then braced them for the remainder of the evening while breathing thoracically. Our vocal apparatus was designed for shouting, but not for both shouting and prolonged bracing. The following exercise will ask you to make several types of vocalizations, including yelling, while breathing diaphragmatically. Coupled with distressed breathing, these exercises would wear out, or even damage, your voice, but diaphragmatic breathing protects it by disallowing gasping, vocal bracing, and the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. After several minutes of practice this will allow you to start vocalizing with, and rehabbing, muscles that were previously stuck in partial contraction. These exercises will also train your vocal muscles to cooperate efficiently, resulting in more sound and less energy expenditure.



In order to acquire a more fully faceted voice and “deep resonance” you must reestablish the muscles responsible for singing, yelling, coughing and growling. We suppress any intimation of a growl, concerned that others will interpret it as adversarial. Through avoiding any tonal suggestions of anger we repress the vocal muscles involved in dominant vocalization. Whole sections of our vocal tract are cramped and dormant because of this. Don’t equate vocal power with discourtesy, and don’t strain your voice to be polite. Model your favorite radio personality or disc jockey emulating the way that they are able to speak both deeply and congenially.

Using portions of your throat that you are unaccustomed to in the exercises above will make you choke and cough. It will likely feel sensitive, scratchy and achy (as in a sore throat). You want to vocalize utilizing these sore portions of the vocal tract. The soreness will dissipate and accumulated phlegm will clear. Whole sections of your vocal apparatus only vibrate when you cough or scream, but you can use diaphragmatic rehabbing to coax them to flutter with every word you speak. Try using noise reducing ear muffs with these exercises so that you are not focused on the timber of your voice, but rather the rattling sensations in your throat.

Chin Lock

Tucking the chin into the chest allows one to contract many muscles in the throat and vocal tract. It is a great way to find and activate lengths of muscle that have gone dormant. This is known in yoga as a chin lock (jalandhara bandha). It will strengthen various muscles including the underused longus colli and longus capitus muscles in the front of the neck. As you perform the chin lock over months you will discover that there are many layers to the dormancy in a large number of laryngeal muscles. As you gain the ability to contract and relax new portions of these muscles you will not only recover your voice, but your neck will become longer, and your throat, and jawline will become leaner.

When trigger points in dormant laryngeal muscles become active we feel “choked up.” The feeling of being strangled by my own throat tension was a daily torment for me. After only a slight provocation, my voice wavered as if I had just been in a fight. People could hear it in my voice and recognized it as an impairment. Strengthening these muscles will clear up the trigger points and make this chakra-like module steadfast, and unfaltering. You will find sections of muscles that are intensely achy to contract. Stimulating them daily with contraction will reanimate the dormant muscles, increase the circulation, remove the achy feeling, and make it impossible for you to feel choked up. Swallowing while holding a chin lock is one way to do this. This will remove the lump from your throat and ensure that you don’t speak with the swallowing muscles unnecessarily engaged as most people do. You have seen the cartoons where the protagonist gulps after they are threatened by the bully. Remove this tendency from your body using the exercise below.


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A. Man performing chin lock; B. Man using fingers to accentuate chin lock; C. View of the muscles of the larynx from the back.

I recommend doing the exercises in this chapter before bed so that you voice can rest and recover fully during sleep.

Ujjayi Breath: Fogging Up a Glass

I have spent numerous hours searching for the optimally relaxed throat/vocal posture. After trying countless configurations I have concluded that the age-old “ujjayi breath” pose is the answer.  Ujjayi (victorious) breath is a common Taoist and yoga breathing technique, where one breathes while “constricting the back of the throat.” Personally I don’t think it involves a constriction, but rather a true relaxation. Ujjayi breathing makes a hoarse, throaty sound because when completely limp, the vocal cords sit very close together and vibrate softly as air moves in and out.

The vocal cords at rest are supposed to be separated by about 8 millimeters of space, but this space doubles during cardiovascular exercise to allow unimpeded breathing. The space also expands, and is braced, during stress because the body assumes that you are going to be breathing heavily. A permanently widened vocal opening at rest is a sign of chronic stress. If you stop bracing it, it will go back to 8 mm. But how are we supposed to learn to relax a structure we can’t see or feel? Luckily the answer is easy, everyone knows how to do it. To perform ujjayi breath, simply breathe as if you were trying to fog up a glass or mirror.


When a trauma-naïve kitten or puppy jumps down to the ground they belt out a soft “hmm” sound when their paws make contact. This is because ujjayi breath is their default and their vocal cords always sit right next to one another. Every breath is nearly a cooing hum. You are performing ujjayi breath properly if you are mere millimeters from a hum. At this setting you should hear a breathy, wheezing, white noise with every breath. White noise is a sound containing many frequencies with equal intensities like the sound of surf. It is not a coincidence that ujjayi breath is also commonly referred to as “ocean’s breath.” You can also think of it as roaring applause. The sound is created when the vocal opening is the bottleneck of the breathing tract. As long as you could fog up a glass, the deep sound producing muscles will be completely relaxed. You should find that after performing vocal exercise #1 above that your fatigued vocal cords can be coaxed into this resting posture more readily. After exercise it is easier to make muscles go limp – but only if you focus on it.

Vocal closure.jpg Vocal rest.jpg Vocal Strain.jpgA. Vocal cord closure; B. Vocal cords at rest; C. Vocal cords braced open.

When you take a cough drop the cold feeling of menthol influences you to narrow your vocal tract to keep it warm, creating the ujayii configuration. A delicious warm chicken soup similarly helps you stop bracing related muscles. Cough drops and warm soup influence you to hold the modules in your throat under the threshold of trigger point activation and that’s why they are commonly believed to help in healing respiratory infections. They encourage restive ujjayi posture.

Once you develop proficiency in breathing with your throat in this configuration try speaking while retaining it. Speak like you are trying to fog up a glass. I think of this as “ujjayi voice.” It may sound weak now, but it is the optimal way to speak. Also consider the “ujjayi smile.” Most humans separate the vocal cords widely when they smile. This is like a dog that is eager to please that pants every time they wag their tails. Your every smile should be accompanied by ujjayi breath.

When you relax the throat and breathe as if you were fogging up a glass it becomes a little harder to breathe. Your respiratory airway diameter narrows. But remember, this is a good thing. Breathing like you are fogging up a glass is an advanced form of resistance breathing. Once you have mastered nose breathing, add ujjayi on top of it to increase the resistance even further. Breathe this way all the time to gain a powerful voice and an even stronger diaphragm.

Allowing your voice to relax completely will may make you feel like you want to cough. The muscles responsible for coughing are usually braced, but suppressing cough will allow them to relax. The next time you feel the tingle of a cough coming on, don’t cough. When you feel the impulse to cough itching in your throat, lie down, breathe diaphragmatically, and concentrate on relaxing that impulse. After you have done this for around a minute perform a natural cough to clear any saliva or mucous. Cough is an invaluably important protective reflex that ejects obstructions to breathing, and stretches and contracts various muscles. You don’t want to inhibit all coughing, just do so once in a while when you have the luxury to breathe deeply. Most people cough too hard and strain the coughing musculature by doing it haphazardly. The diaphragmatic coughing exercise below will improve your voice, and reduce cough reflex hypersensitivity.


Compression for the Throat and Larynx

The vocal folds are shielded by cartilage, so unfortunately we can’t press our fingers against the neck to massage or compress them as we can with the nasopharynx. However, you can give them some relief by compressing the tissues around them.


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A. Larynx; B. Compression of tissues surrounding the larynx; C. Compression of the throat with the use of a basketball.

Rushed Speech, Annunciation, and Clarity

There are many verbal indicators of dominance that are recognized in psychology. More dominant people have more vocal control, are louder, speak with lower pitch, talk more, and are comfortable speaking either fast or slow. They exhibit more prosodic variety using increased rhythm, intonation and melody. They also speak with fewer disfluencies (false starts, stammering, repeated words, mispronunciations, fillers, repaired utterances, etc.). They are less hesitant to interrupt others, are less tolerant of being interrupted, and overlap their speech with that of others more often (Dunbar and Burgoon, 2005).

People who have been heavily subordinated barely move or open their mouth when they speak, they sound uncertain and defensive. They also ramble, murmur and stammer in an effort to create space for a more charismatic person to interrupt them. In my twenties, every time I spoke I acted like I was about to be interrupted. Instead, when you are speaking, act as if you have the floor. This builds credibility, suspense and engages the listener. Hurried speech, and quick responses to another’s questions are submissive and cause you to become tongue tied. Don’t rush to respond.

Employ dramatic pauses. Pause for two seconds before you speak. Pause for a second or so between certain sentences. It conveys that you are so assured of your own power that you trust others won’t interrupt. The slower you speak the more thoughtful and deliberate you will appear. Don’t let silence during a conversation worry you. In professional negotiations often the person who is less comfortable with silence loses. This happens because the silence interrupts their breathing pattern. Be comfortable with all nonverbal aspects of every conversation and you will become the proverbial 500 pound gorilla.

Monitor your breathing carefully during conversations; don’t let it become shallow. Take deep breaths when the other person talks. Pause and breathe in slowly and completely after every few sentences. Don’t feel apologetic for making people wait for you to finish your inhalation. Do not jump back into the conversation quickly using a gasp. Finish the breath that you were on. Your breath comes first.

I would try so hard to downplay any strengths in front of my friends that I would annunciate poorly, articulate poorly, and choose not to use descriptive, terminology when speaking. Over several years this turned me into a person who speaks indistinctly, and it turned my once hefty working vocabulary into a poor one. Speaking clearly, articulately, with charisma is not showing off. Start now. Annunciate as properly as you can and in a few months your utterances will be crystal clear and will sound more intelligent. Don’t forget to practice these things when you speak to yourself.

Relieve Subvocal Tension in the Vocal Cords by Muting the Internal Monologue

A highly constructive form of meditation is to focus on subduing the restless subvocalization that is going on both within your head and within your larynx. The part of your brain that is responsible for generating speech, called Broca’s area, is always active, running speech patterns. Language is always proceeding through our minds, whether it is planning the day, singing the words to a song, or defending ourselves in a hypothetical argument. Sometimes, its actions are not broadcasted globally to the conscious areas of the brain. When this happens, we have a brief respite from being aware of our internal monologue. Usually however, not only is it broadcasting its speech to much of the cortex, but it is broadcasting instructions for speech to the cortical motor areas responsible for moving the vocal cords. This causes us to constantly tense our throats, silently going through the motions of speech. Sometimes the mouth and tongue move with the words, sometimes they do not, but almost always, the voice box mimes the words. Creating reprieve from this interminable narrative, will remove it as another source of strain. Use ujjayi breath to help you build awareness.

Sometimes I pretend that I do not have to use my voice for a week. Try this, you might notice that it aids in vocal repose by taking away the expectation of having to speak. Also, notice how your vocal posture becomes more relaxed when in the following situations: 1) when you are around other people with low, relaxed voices 2) when you wake up in the morning, 3) when you drink a hot or alcoholic beverage, 4) after taking a cough suppressant, or 5) when relaxing in complete safety. You might also try to employ the corpse analogy from earlier chapters, taking on the limp vocal configuration of a deceased person. Spend some time analyzing these states with the intention of being able to reproduce them on command.


Predatory mammals are less likely to attack you if you have a deeper voice. After reading that last sentence notice how your vocal posture altered. You should have felt tissue in the back of your throat drop. Keeping this posture for more than a few seconds is uncomfortable, because it feels so “unguarded.” But this is what you want to pursue. This relaxation will make your voice unshakable. Speak to your pets in a deep voice rather than a high squeaky one. Speaking to your children in a full voice is not only beneficial for you, but will encourage them to develop strong voices of their own.

We think that tension in the vocal tract will make our voice robust, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Speaking with braced laryngeal musculature is like doing manual labor with the hands braced like claws. The most powerful form of your voice results from the least expenditure of energy. Sonic dominance is one thing: vocal efficiency, and efficiency derives from calm practice. The people with the most beautiful, stentorian voices are those that were able to pair tranquil diaphragmatic breathing with vocal projection while growing up. Even if you didn’t have this luxury in childhood, you can create it with the exercises in this chapter.


Chapter 12: Bullet Points

  • Submissive, and stressed mammals vocalize in a range that is artificially high. Over time, this strains the voice box, weakens the voice, and creates a permanent lump in the throat.
  • Finding your relaxed vocal posture will reverse this, but is difficult because you cannot see or feel the vocal cords
  • Tense vocal muscles can be rehabbed by: exercising the muscles involved by holding a chin lock; compressing the muscles; muting the internal monologue; diaphragmatic speaking, singing, growling, and coughing exercises.
  • The optimal, resting vocal posture is a relaxed glottis, breathing as if you are fogging up a glass.