How everyday stress changes our voice – Stress is reflected in subtle changes in pitch, volume and tempo

Louder, faster, louder: When we’re stressed, it also affects our voice and the way we speak, a study reveals. Accordingly, people under stress unconsciously speak higher, faster and slightly louder than usual. These differences are so subtle that our ears often do not notice them, but they can be detected by acoustic analysis. It is also interesting: these changes occur even when we do not subjectively feel particularly stressed.

Time pressure, conflicts, problems: more and more people experience increased stress at work and in the family. The extent to which we experience these stresses varies—not everyone experiences stress in the same way. Nevertheless, studies show that it is happening stress level harmful to health and psyche. The consequences range from insomnia, depression and burnout to immune effectcardiovascular diseases and even Krebs.

Problem: It is difficult to objectively determine a person’s stress level. The most common way to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol is to analyze a blood or saliva sample, which is time-consuming.

Voice as an indicator of stress?

But there is an easier way: a person’s daily stress is also reflected in their voice and the way they speak, as Markus Langer of Saarland University and his team have now discovered. Her research was prompted by previous research that had already shown vocal changes in extreme stressful situations. “The voices of the pilots were evaluated right before the plane crash. Their voices showed signs of stress, which is perhaps not surprising,” explains Langer.

To find out whether normal daily stress also causes such changes, the team asked 111 working subjects to report daily for a week about their daily work and potential stressors. Participants were also asked about their subjective stress levels. Each subject also sent a voice message in the evening, which the researchers conducted for acoustic analysis. For this purpose, physical parameters were averaged over the week and then measured by how much individual daily measurements deviated from them and in what form.

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Louder, faster and higher

The result: If the subjects had a stressful day full of meetings, conflicts, or difficult tasks, their voices showed subtle but significant changes compared to how they spoke on less stressful days. “On the one hand, the volume of the voice increased, which means that people spoke a little louder,” reports Langer. Also, their voices were higher and they spoke faster than usual.

However, the magnitude of these stress-related changes is small: if, for example, the subject spoke at an average of 60 decibels, the volume increased by only one unit to 61 decibels as stress increased. “These small changes are often imperceptible to the human ear, but the differences can be significantly measured by a computer,” explains Langer.

An objective indicator of stress

Also important: this vocal response to stress occurs even when a person does not feel any subjective stress. Even when the subjects said they didn’t feel any more stressed than usual, a busy day with high levels of stress could be heard in their voices. “This is an important finding because when you ask people if they’re stressed, many people say, ‘Oh, no, it’s fine,’ even though it’s time to make a change,” says Langer.

According to the researchers, voice analysis could help determine the objective level of stress relatively easily. A few simple voice recordings on a cell phone or computer could provide enough data to measure stress levels, for example, using automated assessment software. “Voice could be an easily measurable early warning sign of stress-related health consequences,” Langer and his team explain. (Psychological Science, 2022; doi: 10.1177/09567976211068110)

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Source: Saarland University

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