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PTSD and the Exaggerated Startle Response

June 24, 2019 Beth Avery

When I explain my posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) startle response to people who don't have much knowledge about the disorder, I like to describe my brain as being "stuck in survival mode." It's the easiest way to describe how I feel to people who don't have PTSD because everyone understands what "survival mode" means.

Sure, not many people I meet have experienced the same type of trauma that I have experienced. But everybody understands the fight-or-flight response. It, and the startle response from PTSD or not, is a shared human experience.

Understanding the PTSD Exaggerated Startle Response 

My favorite example to use when relating my experiences to those without PTSD is the feeling of skipping a step going down the stairs. We've all been there: that moment when your foot reaches for the ground and finds only air, when fear runs up your spine and time seems to slow for a second. It's an uncomfortable feeling, and it can take your body a couple of seconds to calm down after your foot finds solid ground.

That's a feeling I experience every day. My mind has trouble distinguishing between real and false dangers, so it treats them all the same. My triggers can be as little as a shampoo bottle falling in the shower or as big as a car slamming on its breaks in front of me. It doesn't matter. My brain responds the same way, screaming, "Watch out!" as loudly as it can. 

My startle response is one of the most embarrassing symptoms of PTSD I experience. Unlike the rest of my PTSD symptoms, I can't just put on a happy face and pretend everything is okay when it happens. It's difficult for me to control my physical responses when I'm in public. I flinch when strangers brush up against me in the grocery store. I jump out of my chair when someone sneaks up to my desk at work. I gasp when someone turns a corner on the street at the same time as me. If I didn't expect it to happen, I'm almost guaranteed to be startled. 

How to Deal with a PTSD Startle Response

I react this way as an adult because of the violence I experienced in my household growing up. As a kid, I never knew when the next bad thing was going to happen. The only way to stay safe was to be ready to act at a moment's notice. Though my environment today is no longer dangerous, my body doesn't know how to calm down. It continues to read incoming sounds and touches as threats and forces me to react accordingly.

I'm still learning how to reduce my PTSD startle response, and I don't have the perfect solution for anyone struggling with similar issues. What I have learned, however, is that it takes time. Little by little, I've begun to relax around friends and family members I know I can trust. In places I feel safe, such as the library or my gym, I've made active efforts to quiet the constant warnings of danger in my mind. 

Trusting your surroundings after experiencing trauma can be scary. The grocery store can feel dangerous. A simple touch on your shoulder can feel like an attack. The exaggerated startle response is a normal trauma reaction and it's something people with PTSD can work through over time. With my own startle response, I'm learning to relax where and when it matters the most, and I'm proud of my body for taking these first steps towards peace. 

APA Reference
Avery, B. (2019, June 24). PTSD and the Exaggerated Startle Response, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, November 28 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2019/6/ptsd-and-the-exaggerated-startle-response



Author: Beth Avery

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Alison
June, 21 2022 at 8:24 pm

I think I have an ESR that I believe is a consequence of violence in my first marriage nearly 50 years ago. That is certainly when it began. Although I do not get flashbacks, and am able to block memories when they do come up, I jump out of my skin (and sometimes shout) when someone appears when or where I don't expect them. I also jump on the street if there is any kind of loud noise. BUT these days the reflex is entirely without emotional weight: my heart does not race and I do not actually feel frightened or upset - though I sometimes have to reassure a companion who has found my enormous jump or shout alarming.

George
January, 29 2022 at 1:34 am

My partner and I call this aspect of my personality my “blehhh” response- endearingly of course. It is an entirely uncontrollable reality where events around me that could happen without maybe even being noticed by some, will literally make me jump and make a sound (bleh) because the urge to react is strong enough to override anything I’m doing. Think being at McDonalds and the to clerk who’s grabbing your physics change and telling you about the weather when someone in the kitchen mistakenly drops a spatchula… bleh! What should have been disregarded as important information seems to somehow cut the line for what my body on its own reacts to. It is just as embarrassing at McDonald’s when it happens, as it is when my staff startles me, or when my partner touches my shoulder to let me know she’s behind me. I have not been able to find any strategies to cope with this other than normalizing the event with the people around me and learning to accept and even laugh at when it happens.

Angela Waterford
November, 18 2019 at 1:22 pm

As you've mentioned, I've been having trouble distinguishing between false and real dangers in my life because of the PTSD I've been suffering all this time. I discovered that I suffered from trauma from my childhood experience, and despite the fact that I want to live a normal life, I'm unable to do so because I haven't been able to get over it. I think I'll seek treatment for this so I can finally live normally.

Dale Sturgeon
July, 22 2019 at 8:52 am

This has been a contentious issue in my home. Having grown up in an abusive alcoholic home and experiencing the violence, hate and personal death threats for as long as I can recall, its an ongoing battle. A battle that a non sufferer cannot understand. When my Dog suddenly barks or a cup is dropped, or something moved suddenly, I jump out of my skin and usually a curse word or 2. My wife doesn't get it, she has chastised me for it and now just smirks at me like I'm a strange person.

July, 22 2019 at 3:58 pm

Hi Dale, I relate to this! It's very hard to explain to people that don't suffer from PTSD why you are the way you are. It's a struggle for sure. Even if people don't always understand your journey, be proud of yourself for how far you've come.

Dale Sturgeon
September, 30 2019 at 10:42 am

Thank you so much Beth;
Its currently a huge struggle right now.
Feeling disconnected from life, feeling of numb, as if I'm just going through paces with no ending.
Connection to Family members isn't the same since I started the 12 step ACoA program. Not having a pre-trauma me due to childhood trauma, everything I've ever known, done or understood is no longer viable as it was based on falsities and who I was isn't anymore, or so it seems.

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