What Causes Selective Mutism?

Most people with Selective Mutism have a predisposition to anxiety. What does that mean? It means they’ve inherited a tendency to be anxious from one or both of their parents (or possibly further down the gene pool, like a grandparent). Your genetic make-up not only determines how you look but also how you act, to a point. So basically, a person with Selective Mutism is born that way, in most cases.

There’s a part in the brain called the amygdala (sounds like ‘a mig duh la’). It’s an almond shaped area responsible for controlling emotions, such as fear. This amygdala is stimulated even before we realize there’s a threat, and it sends signals to the brain to make your body react quickly, without thought. For example, if you’re walking along in the woods and a snake suddenly drops down from a branch, your body automatically jumps back in fear. You don’t think about it, you don’t control your legs or arms, you just DO. This automatic reaction is the job of the amygdala. It keeps us safe from harm.

But in someone with Selective Mutism, the amygdala is triggered into action by what many others perceive as normal situations, like school, birthday parties, church functions, pretty much any direct encounter with other people. The amygdala perceives this social encounter as a threat and causes the ‘fight or flight’ response to happen, or in this case, the third option, ‘freeze’. The heart begins to beat faster and breathing quickens in preparation for the harmful situation. The body responds in fear, automatically. There is no conscious control, no choosing to be afraid, just the body reacting.

So, how do you change this reaction? You don’t. The amygdala is only doing its job. But that doesn’t mean a person with SM cannot overcome the anxiety and learn to use their voice in public. No, it only means it will be more challenging for that person. Frequent gradual exposure of the SM person to fearful situations that trigger the amygdala (social settings) may help in learning how to handle the feelings. It doesn’t rid them, but it may teach the person how to move past those fearful thoughts and reactions. But fear is a strong emotion, so this exposure therapy technique should be a slow progression, at the SM person’s tolerance level. For more information on exposure therapy, visit the Child Mind Institute.

I believe the biggest part of any recovery is to understand the illness. Hopefully, this gives you a better insight into the world of Selective Mutism.

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