We all know stress isn't good for us. But how can it affect your voice? Stress or worry can manifest in many different ways, through short term triggers like rush hour tube rage, cancelled train panic or pre audition nerves. But what if you are going through a more long term state of stress? For instance; you are dealing with an emotional situation, or maybe have ongoing financial worries or are ill or injured.
When you find yourself in a stressful situation, no matter how trivial it may seem in hindsight, the body goes into 'fight or flight' mode which is a purely mammalian reaction. There is a lot of scientific research on stress, and I mean A LOT. But they all agree that when our body goes into this mode it releases a hormone called Cortisol which affects the body in a number of ways. I only want to focus on the ones that directly affect the voice, which if I'm quite honest is most of them!
So Cortisol releasing from the hypothalamus causes a sudden onset of muscle tension. Tension especially situated in the head, neck and shoulders (... so not great for when we are wanting to sing!). Excess tension inhibits the body, lungs and larnyx from moving freely. Stress also makes us breathe harder creating shallower more forced breaths and yet more tension; stopping the lungs from being able to empty efficiently. More forced and uncontrolled breathing is a huge hinderance when it comes to belting and can lead to cracking during songs due to too much air being forced and uncontrolled through the vocal chords.
Stress can also cause reflux which is a build up of acid which irritates the esophagus and the pharynx, inflammating it and making it hard to sing and potentially more damaging.
We have all felt fearful of our voice at some point, whether you have an illness and it disappears and loses strength for a short amount of time or if it is feeling different or you have gotten into bad habits and worry that your voice is in some way injured. I would say a huge majority of the time there is no vocal injury to worry about. I would actually say your main issue is the worry itself! You can see what stress does to the body even in short bursts, but what if you allow yourself to continue in this state of worry for a long period of time i.e continue to focus on how your 'badly' your voice is performing? The answer... the symptoms will at best remain the same or potentially get worse, I don't mean necessarily vocal injury but you will struggle to get better. Your body is a clever and complex mechanism that is designed to evolve and change in order to allow your bodily functions to continue in what ever way necessary. So, for example, if you develop shoulder tension from worrying about either your voice or a personal situation, this will certainly affect your phonation, probably making the larynx less flexible which means you may compensate by using your external muscles to hit notes or push through to certain registers with your larynx in a fixed position. This is when the voice is then going to get tired and inflammed.
I have not said ANY of this to scare you! ALL of these things can be undone very easily and it would be a good time to book yourself in for a lesson with a teacher so they can give you some outside assistance on how to reverse these new habits. There is a massive importance in letting things go, atleast for a little while. Allow yourself time to sit and think of different more positive things to give your mind and body a break. If you're into it, crack out a bit of yoga or chill out and meditate. Anxiety is an emotional state that is designed to keep us safe however WORRY or stress is essentially a useless emotion. It is worrying about things that we are unsure of or have not yet happened. If you can eliminate this or at best give yourself a few moments freedom from it every day it will help to free up your voice.