SportStars Magazine

Vocal Chord Dysfunction: When Stress Shuts Down Your Airway

Vocal Chord Dysfunction, VCD

Our Mental Skills Professional, Erika Westhoff, Breaks Down Vocal Chord Dysfunction In The Stressed Out Athlete •

In my 20 years as a mental skills coach, there’s no doubt that stress is a bigger part of young athletes lives today — more than ever before. So much so, it’s showing up in very serious ways in the body. One of the most detrimental ways stress shows up in the body is through a disorder I see more and more, Vocal Chord Dysfunction.

VCD can be terrifying for an athlete. Essentially, while at full effort the body becomes over stimulated from physical, mental and environmental stress. As a result, the body attempts to shut down by closing the vocal cords, not allowing air to move into the lungs and forcing the athlete to stop. While Vocal Chord Dysfunction is a complicated disorder studied in clinics around the country, there’s no doubt stress plays a big part in how VCD episodes develop.

I see a lot of athletes with this condition. Many of them have similar symptoms and often fit a personality profile referred to in research as “stress-prone,” or more commonly as “Type A.” These are athletes who are often talented, very hard working and push themselves — both in sports and in the classroom. A great example of an athlete with condition is Rick.

Rick was a runner. A very good runner. He had an outstanding freshman year with his high school cross country and track team. Then, during summer training prior to his sophomore year, something started to go terribly wrong. Rick felt his throat tighten and eventually close up halfway through races and tougher training runs.

He was forced to stop. No matter how bad he wanted to keep going. But strangely enough, once he stopped he could catch his breath and pick up the pace once again. After this happened a few times, Rick became fearful it would happen again. Often, it did. Therefore he began to hold back.

The combination of anxious feelings about possibly having to stop and frustration that his times were steadily increasing made for a very difficult summer of training.

Rick and his mom did their homework and were able find a Vocal Chord Dysfunction clinic to get a clear diagnosis and breathing techniques, both key areas to help athletes learn to manage VCD. The last step was a referral from the clinic to me, to teach Rick how to manage his stress and avoid VCD episodes altogether.

We began by teaching Rick all the mental training fundamentals — the same skills I teach athletes who come in to simply add to their training toolbox. We put extra emphasis on all relaxation and stress management skills

>> Progressive relaxation
>> Meditation
>> Breathing
>> Imagery
>> Self-talk strategies

We also ensured Rick had a solid plan of how to integrate these skills into his pre-race routines. Rick needed a good sense of control over what stressed him and how he responded to that stress. Once this control was established, Rick was able to start pushing his runs once again.

Cross-country season proved to be the perfect experimental time for him to really nail down his race preparation and race management. As the season progressed, he was able to focus more and more on race strategy and pushing himself. Rick was running some of his best races going into the postseason, where he finished in the top 15 of his state as a sophomore.

Rick’s confidence was sky high and he was excited about the upcoming track season. While Vocal Chord Dysfunction is never cured, Rick now has it well controlled.

The keys to controlling VCD are three fold: 1) Diagnosis from a medical doctor (is it asthma or is it VCD?), 2) breathing techniques from a skilled speech therapist or pathologist, and 3) mental skills training with a sport psychology professional who has experience working with VCD. With all three pieces of the puzzle in place, the success rate for athletes with VCD is excellent.

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