At a Loss For Words: The Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon

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Reader’s Question

I have rarely been able to defend myself verbally. As I approach 64 years of age I find it even more difficult to find the words I need, even when the words are quite ordinary. It’s not that I have a poor memory (I score 99+ percentile in memory), nor poor vocabulary (I score an unlikely 5 standard deviations above the mean in vocabulary). I seem to respond poorly to even minor stressors. My life has been adversely affected by ADD (even at my age it continues to be a problem). This possibly results from being struck on the forehead when I was two. It hasn’t responded to medication. I would like to learn more about my “loss for words” problem. Please suggest where I might learn more.

Psychologist’s Reply

There are many reasons why someone might have a difficult time finding the right words. One of the most common reasons for word-finding problems (also sometimes referred to as the “tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon”) is stress. You mentioned that you find it hard to defend yourself verbally, which indicates to me that this may happen at times when you feel like you are being attacked or that you are pressured to defend your position. When you feel pressure to speak (whether it’s pressure from within or someone else is pressuring you) it can be quite stressful and can make word finding even more challenging. Some people describe freezing up when they feel pressured to speak their mind.

You also mentioned that you respond poorly to minor stressors, which indicates to me, as well, that this may be linked with stress. It is amazing the impact that stress can have on our bodies. One way that stress can impact us is by temporarily short circuiting our brains. You may have all the faculties for expressing yourself well — a strong vocabulary and a good memory — but under stress you brain short circuits.

If you believe that it is stress impacting your word finding abilities, then the first step is to look at the particular situations that are causing these problems and see if you can find a common thread. What is it about these situations that are stressful for you? Are you anxious about the word finding problem and then creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do certain people trigger this response in you?

With that being said, it is also important to mention that there are other causes of word finding difficulties. Although stress and anxiety are common culprits of word-finding problems, it is not the only possible cause. Some other common causes of word finding problems are: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Depression, natural changes that occur in the brain with advancing age, as well as cognitive impairments such as dementia, and head injuries.

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