Series: What trauma does to you – The Exaggerated Startle Reflex

Photo by Ariana Prestes on Unsplash

With an exaggerated startle response, if I see someone out of the corner of my eye or someone comes up on me unexpectedly, I jump, sometimes shriek, my heart hammers, and my breathing is rapid and shallow. I feel like I’m jolted into taking flight, and just as fast, I can’t move and freeze. It takes a long time to calm down, no matter how I appear to brush it off. It’s unpleasant, but I’m accustomed to it, especially now that I know it’s common with Complex PTSD and PTSD. I react to unexpected visual, acoustic, and touch incidents. It’s an extreme response because my brain was trained that too many things – including caretakers – were dangerous, volatile, and potentially life-threatening.  

In the house I grew up in, there were explosions of anger, mostly from my mother. Never from my father. Sometimes, when I was very young, the anger was from two of my brothers and while not directed at me, still terrifying to witness. While I didn’t experience their rage, they would put me on top of the fridge, leap out and scare me at night, and sneak into the bathroom and pour ice water on me when I was in the tub. My amygdala, the fear center, was in overdrive.

As a result, there is nothing at all funny to me about the segments on Ellen’s show where she scares her guests. They make me physically and emotionally uncomfortable to the point where I feel like screaming. I’ve never understood what’s funny about scaring people. It’s unkind at best and often cruel. Part of why I hate it so much is that it creates the freeze response in me, so I have the feeling of being trapped, helpless and terrified, just as when I was a child.

Other than mindfulness and practicing grounding techniques, there is a prescription drug to help mitigate the exaggerated startle reflex. Unfortunately for me, it is used to treat blood pressure and mine is already on the low side, so it’s not an option for me. It helps to know that it’s a part of CPTSD. It would benefit all of us to treat each other with more kindness for all of us are fighting internal battles.


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