Calming Down the Startle Response

Calming Down the Startle Response

Do you have a strong startle response?  Are you jumpy?  If so, you may be suffering from an overactive amygdala and could use a little help settling down a bit.

This is oversimplifying it but the follow is how I explain it to my clients.  The amygdala is the part of the brain that alerts our body when danger is present.  It activates all the necessary ingredients for your body to fight and flee.  It is always awake, on-call, and ready to go.  That being said, when trauma or overwhelm are present (and unresolved) the amygdala can get stuck in overdrive and send us a lot of “false positives”.  It’s like having a house with a smoke detector that goes off every time your next door neighbor burns their toast.  

I think what can be confusing is that we don’t know what put our smoke detector on the “super sensitive” setting.  To help with that I think it’s important I share a bit about trauma and the varying degrees it can come in.

Trauma isn’t cookie cutter.  It is subjective.  I talk a lot about trauma in my practice but not without also talking about adversity and overwhelm.  I like to describe adversity as an experience that blocks us from a goal.  It can be repetitive or one big doozy.  Overwhelm is simply something that happens out of the blue and pushes us past our ability to adaptively cope in the moment.  Our margin is all used up and there’s nothing left.  

Either way our normal way of being has been interrupted or overcome by something we don’t normally encounter.  This feels overwhelming.  What bothers one person may not at all bother another person.  A first responder’s daily work stress looks very different than the daily work stress experienced by - say - an accountant. If an accountant spend a day in the shoes of a first responder they would likely feel completely overwhelmed as well.  Deer in headlights, anyone?

Same holds true with your individual journey.  Let’s say you’re the person that has always slept well, and taken good care of yourself.  You have a good self-care routine, have good daily structure and you find you flourish in that routine.  Then let’s say baby number one is born … all that normalcy is out the window.  Baby is up at night, you’re not sleeping, and you can just kiss that hot yoga class good-bye.  See ya.  Suddenly things are different and you are overwhelmed by all the changes to the point you’re starting to question your sanity.  This and many other "out of the ordinary” changes come to us in different ways.  They can feel really scary and unnerving.  

Let’s get back to the startle response.  You may think your trauma has to be directly linked to “loud noises” or being snuck up on in order for your startle response to be overly active, but no.  Your startle response can be evidence that you simply have no margin for error with stress and, thus, you overreact at the slightest change in your environment (i.e., the door slamming, a car horn, or a thunderclap).  

As I often ask in my blogs…so, what can we do about it?  Give this strategy a try.  With each new place you encounter try orienting yourself.  One of the the ways to do this is to use micromovements with your head and neck. 

Let’s use an example of how to use micromovements.  You get in your car and before you fire up the engine sit there for a moment.  And while you sit there, slowly (ever so slowly, turtle slow - in fact) turn your head left and then slowly right.  Take your environment in.  Taking the time to “take in” your environment helps reassure the brain that you are safe. 

In the neck near the brain stem there is an important spot that is activated when turned.  I’ve heard that this spot activates the “social engagement system.”  The way I understand this (and don’t quote me here) is that as social beings when we are engaged with others we turn our heads to talk to others and take our world in.  This tells the brain and body that “all is well, and I’m safe with my community.”  This is much different than the posture we take when we’re in danger in which case we we stiffen, our eyes narrow, muscles constrict, and pupils dilate.  The startle response looks very similar to that.  We can reverse this overactive response by recruiting the social engagement system and its calming effect by simply turning the head slowly from left to right.  This helps us come out of the freeze or “scared stiff” response that so often comes with a sensitive startle response.  

Give it a try.  See if orienting by using micromovements helps reduce your startle response over time.  It will likely take repetition so stick with it.  And if you need more help with your overactive startle response, reach out to me here.  I offer EMDR therapy in Wayzata, MN.  I like helping people get unstuck and realigned with their potential.  

Also check out these books (In An Unspoken Voice and Waking the Tiger) by Peter Levine; the originator and developer of Somatic Experiencing (SE) - a powerful therapy that uses micromovements (and many other things) with the body to help people heal from trauma. Also, if you’re interested in exploring therapy with an amazing therapist trained in SE, check out Kimberly Lovejoy, MS, LICSW, and here is a Psychology Today article written about SE.

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