The Startle Syndrome Explained


DENVER POLITICAL aide P.G. considers herself excessively jumpy, sometimes embarrassingly so. She once shrieked at a sudden noise during a duplicate bridge tournament at a country club. Heads turned.

The “startle easily symptom”—also called “a case of the nerves” or being “on edge” or “jumpy” —is a mostly unconscious motor response to sudden, unexpected sounds and sights.  The response to loud noise, the most studied, is the acoustic startle reflex.

Startle is a very interesting reflex,” explains psychology researcher Ottmar Lipp at Australia’s Curtin University— “a brainstem reflex… mediated by two to three synapses.  In other words, it’s actually very simple.”

Emotional State Plays a Part

The startle response is more intense when you’re undistracted, trying to rest, relaxing or going to or waking up from sleep.  But unlike the automatic reflex to a knee tap, this reflex is affected by your emotional state.  If you’re already feeling anxious—while watching the movie “Psycho,” for example—a sudden door-slamming will make you jump, notes Lipp.  But if you’re watching a comedy, the same slammed door will startle you less.

Jumpiness “can come and go rarely, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely,” according to anxietycentre.com, an international therapy group that offers counseling online and in person.  It can range in intensity from slight to moderate to severe. It can also come in waves—strong one moment and easing off the next; and can change from day to day or moment to moment.

When the stress response occurs too frequently or too dramatically —called “stress response hyperstimulation” — the body has trouble recovering and remains hyper-vigilant, in semi-emergency readiness.  The brain is continually flooded with stress signals, even in the absence of stimuli, including elevated levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol and a hyperactive amygdala, the brain structure most commonly involved in the stress response.

Lowering the Volume 

Startling easily can occur when the brain has been conditioned to perceive the environment as dangerous or threatening—and is a physical indicator of PTSD.  Even in veterans with mild symptoms, a heightened startle response can help with determining a diagnosis and treatment.

In adults, one study found the acoustic startle response to be an independent indicator of childhood abuse, even with no symptoms of PTSD or depression.

The startle response can also be more pronounced in people with a genetic variant that affects regulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine: those with more sensitive nervous systems have faster reactions but are more prone to anxiety disorders.  Also having a suspected genetic link, behavioral and psychiatric symptoms can occur along with the startle response.  The extreme startle that occurs with the “Jumping Frenchmen of Maine” disorder can include jumping, yelling, hitting, involuntarily repeating sentences and forced obedience to commands.

As with any reflex, intentional repetition of the startle stimuli can help diminish the response. You can slam your own doors, but having another person make noise adds the crucial variable of surprise. Cognitive behavior therapy, which also involves repeated exposure to offending stimuli, can counter increased fearfulness and a heightened response to fear.

In addition, regularly practicing self-calming techniques, such as meditation and breathing, can lower the brain’s background level of alertness. When Tibetan monks, known for their meditation practices, were tested in a lab with a gun fired close to their ears, they had no startle reflex at all. People generally figure out their preferred method for stress-reduction breathing. Most methods involve a combination of slow inhaling through the nose and slow exhaling through the mouth, sometimes counting to 5 or 6 for each. Some involve several seconds of breath-holding after the inhale.

Calming Effects of Lavender

Essential oils can also help—lavender, in particular.  A recent Japanese study found that sniffing linalool, a component of lavender oil, affected mouse brains “like popping a Valium.” Signals went directly from the nose to the same brain areas as those affected by the drug but without entering the bloodstream. According to the New York Times, the findings add to a “growing body of research, demonstrating anxiety-reducing qualities of lavender odors.”

P.G. had tried everything from breathing and meditation to psychotherapy, but after hearing about the duplicate bridge incident, her therapist recommended a local naturopath. In a regimen intended to balance the organs and treat a host of minor complaints that included difficulty sleeping, the naturopath advised weekly enemas, dietary changes, digestive enzymes and supplements.

After a few months, P.G. still jumped at noises. But she had a small victory when a trip to the basement led to a surprise encounter with a snake caught in a glue trap designed for mice and then a second snake in another glue trap. Neither made her jump or shriek.  For now, P.G. will continue the regimen, hoping for further benefits.

—Mary Carpenter

Every Tuesday in this space, well-being editor Mary Carpenter reports on health news we can use.



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