Our body is truly incredible—if we’re being chased by a lion, the stress of the situation triggers a reaction in our body that helps us run. the. heck. outta. there. It’s called the fight-or-flight response (or if you want to get science-y, our sympathetic nervous system).
The heart beats faster. The lungs take in more oxygen. The brain is more alert. The senses become sharper.
But this newfound energy doesn’t just come out of nowhere—other important functions in the body are, in essence, weakened in order to supply energy to where it’s needed. And this is all well and good, provided that… you get away from the lion. When you’re no longer being chased, things in the body go back to normal—back to the “rest and digest” mode (or in other words, our parasympathetic nervous system).
The problem is, that for many of us, it feels like the lion is always chasing us. Job. Family. Finances. Relationships. Sickness. Worship team woes.
I’m talking about chronic stress—this particular lion wreaks absolute havoc on the body… and anything that affects your body affects your voice. BIG-TIME.
Perhaps you’ve experienced some of these things when you sing…
- throat tension/tightness
- off-pitch notes
- voice cracking/breaking
- running out of breath
- lack of confidence
- dry mouth/throat
- excess mucus
- throat clearing
- vocal fatigue
- raspy/breathy tone
- indigestion/acid reflux
Of course, there are other reasons why these things happen. But in many cases, stress is a major—and I’d say, often the biggest—factor.
As singers, we tend to manifest stress in our voices—the stress of work demands, finances, arguments, feelings of being “not good enough”, the list goes on and on… all these things cause excess muscle tension around the larynx (aka your “voice box”).
And when there’s tension in the throat, the body compensates by gripping harder as we sing… extra muscles are “recruited” to try to make the voice more stable (namely the tongue, jaw and neck muscles tend to get involved way too much)—causing an increase of force as the vocal cords close.
And when your vocal cords are opening and closing around 200-500 times per second as you sing (not an exaggeration)… that’s a big deal! Imagine you had to clap your hands together for 20 minutes straight. If you clap softly, your hands and arms will probably be a bit tired, but otherwise fine. But if you clap hard… at the end of 20 minutes, they’re most likely going to feel terrible. If you clap like that again later today, then again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next… what starts out as probably just a bit of redness will probably end in blisters and tears.
When the vocal cords are coming together too forcefully as a result of the body’s natural reaction to stress, just like your hands, even a simple 20-minute worship set (let alone a long rehearsal or a long practice session at home!) is probably going to end in a tired, strained voice.
I know, I know… you want a quick solution (me too). What pill can I take? What supplements can I add to my daily routine? What vocal exercise can I do? Can I just go get a massage?
Sure, sometimes those things can help. But they’re not going to get at the root cause: the stress.
No regimen of supplements (even if it says it’s a “magic stress-relieving” pill) can get rid of the stress.
No amount of vocal exercise (even the “tension-busting” exercises I have in my courses) can get rid of the stress.
A massage (although it will feel good!) can’t get rid of the stress.
I encourage you—first things first—to spend some time asking God where the stress is coming from.
Are there pressures at work? Are you overwhelmed by everything on your plate right now?
Are there issues in your marriage or family? Is there a challenging relationship on your worship team?
Are you facing big changes in these coming months? Are you worried about what that will look like?
Are you struggling with health issues?
Are there mindsets and beliefs that are holding you back? Do you feel shame because of mistakes you’ve made? Do you feel like you’re not (and may never be) good enough?
First of all, the lies of the enemy have GOT TO STOP. We have to change the way we think and the things we speak over ourselves—we have to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and… take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). We have to “let God transform [us] into a new person by changing the way [we] think. Then [we] will learn to know God’s will for [us], which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
I love what Dr. Caroline Leaf says:
“As we think, we change the physical nature of our brain. As we consciously direct our thinking, we can wire out toxic patterns of thinking and replace them with healthy thoughts.”
This is science—it’s not just wishful thinking. God created our bodies and our brains in an incredible way! We aren’t limited to the struggles we’re having now. We don’t need to remain tied down to the stress that’s sabotaging us. We can be free.
Of course, this is often easier said than done. It takes time and diligence to change patterns.
But there’s also a simplicity to it. The only way we can build new (healthy!) thinking patterns is to know who He says we are… and the best way to do that? Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”
I’ll say that again… slow down.
Ask God for help. Direction. Discernment.
Perhaps something needs to change at work.
Perhaps you and your spouse need to see a counsellor.
Perhaps you need to reach out to someone and take the first step to make amends.
Maybe you need to make some serious changes to get on the road to better health. Eat better. Start exercising. Get more sleep. Lose weight.
Maybe you need to take a break (from fill-in-the-blank). Say no. Guess what—that’s ok! Don’t worry about what people will think. It’s about what God thinks. What is He leading you to do? Who is He leading you to be?
I’ll tell you what I know for sure—God created your body to function in perfect health. He created your voice to function in freedom and beauty. And chronic stress is—sadly—sabotaging that perfect health and vocal freedom for so many of us.
The good news is that it doesn’t need to be that way! You are not a victim of your circumstances or your biology. You are a child of the most high God—created in His image—and I declare over you that as you are diligent to ask for help and to take steps in reducing (and eliminating!) chronic stress in your life, that there is immense freedom and boldness coming for you. Your singing and worship leading will no longer be plagued by tension, fatigue, pitchiness, dryness, or anything else that prevents you from singing as He has created you to sing—freely and beautifully!
Be well, friends. “I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers!” (3 John 1:2)
Yes and amen! Chronic stress runs rampant in our society as a whole.
Loved the hand clapping analogy!
And loved how you brought it back to the Lord and all the scripture you included!
Thank u so much this is exactly what I needed to hear! So encouraging, this truly spoke to my heart 🙂
You’re very welcome—glad it was encouraging for you!
I just have a 5 month old and my husband and I both work 40 hours a week in ministry…. no stress over here. 🤣 For real though, I can tell on the days I feel like a zombie that singing is a bit harder and more exhausting, versus when I’m hydrated and have gotten more sleep or am more at peace with life in general… it makes a difference for sure.
Also, the clapping thing made a lot of sense to me!
I sang at church yesterday while nursing a migraine. My body and mind were definitely stressed and it showed in my singing. I felt my throat practically freeze when I started the singing the octave higher in the bridge of “The Blessing” – “May his favour be upon you…..” The hard hand clapping for 20 minutes analogy helps me understand what happened to my vocal chords!
Totally! No fun!
I could relate to so much of this. All my stress and tension just goes right to my neck, throat and shoulders. I knew it affected my voice performance but didn’t realize it was making it work harder as a result. I recently started a fast to reset my mind and habits around what causes stress and strain on my voice.
Totally! So good to be aware of this!