This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
Sometimes, I wish I had a sign on my chair, as if I were a rare, hamster-like mammal scurrying around behind thick glass at the zoo:
“Please don’t disturb, startles very easily.”
I startle at everything. A sudden noise, a leaf, a mouse, somebody speaking to me when I’m in deep thought. I gasp, sometimes I curse, my arms fly up, my heart starts pounding — and in real serious cases, I get such a quick adrenaline rush, my fingers tingle.
I act like I’m terrified by life. It annoys me, and it’s often embarrassing.
I recently posted about this on Twitter — complaining about being startled by phantom mice, wondering if I could take control of this somehow. I heard from so many people who could relate.
Is it possible to decrease your own startle reflex? Any techniques that work? Mine has always been over the top, and getting much worse. The psychosomatic mouse incidents alone might kill me.
— Maiken Scott (@MaikenScott) March 4, 2021
Georgette Hamaty told me she was so startled by a car crash scene in a movie, she jumped out of her seat and knocked her iced tea out of the cup holder, spilling it all over her husband.
Eugene Sonn spoke of his endless efforts not to startle his wife, Jess Walcott. He knocks on the door, or the door frame if the door is open, before entering a room.
“But even the knock on the door will send you to go, GAAAAAH,” he said.
No matter what he tries, she still startles when he enters.
“I know there are times when you can be standing somewhere, and I know you’re there,” Walcott said. “And still somehow I can jump a foot into the air because I’m startled by the presence of you. It’s like a continuous surprise.”
That’s how I feel: continuously surprised and shocked by not-very-shocking things. Like, I have children, and there will be loud noises in my house. My phone will ring, and coworkers will speak to me.
Understanding the startle response
I wanted to understand this reaction better and find out if there was anything I could do about it. I reached out to Seth Norrholm, who startles people for a living — at least some of the time.
Norrholm is an associate professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, and he studies people’s startle response in experiments. For example, surprising them with a sudden loud noise to get their baseline startle response, and then repeating that same experiment in the dark, where people feel more on edge. That sounded like a place straight out of a nightmare to me, and I wondered if people ever came back to his lab after the first visit.
“Yes, I can safely report that they do,” he assured me. “Over the 15 years or so that we’ve been doing this, we’ve startled thousands of people, and many of them on multiple occasions.”
Norrholm explained that startling is part of our fight-flight-or-freeze response.
“It’s a reflex in the sense that it actually happens below the level of consciousness, at the level of your spinal cord.”
He added that it’s an adaptive response, part of our autonomic nervous system, a way to prepare for an imminent threat.
“In human beings, the most common startle response is to blink your eyes. But if the sound is loud enough, then you’re not only going to blink your eyes, but you’re also going to tuck your head in and perhaps raise your arms to protect your head. And so this is a defensive orienting move meant to protect the vital organs and the brain within the skull,” Norrholm said.
A loud bang, a box falling right behind you — these can set off a cascade through your autonomic nervous system, initiating a stress response. Signals from the brain get to the pituitary gland, which leads to the release of cortisol, the human stress hormone. And that cortisol will course through your bloodstream to prepare you for a threatening situation. It could also affect your heart rate or breathing.
Norrholm said we’re born with different baseline levels of how much we startle.
“So just like you have blue eyes and brown hair, you have a trait level of startle that you’re born with,” he said. “So it could be for you, for example, that you’ve had that high level of startle for your whole life. So you remember as a kid when a balloon popped, you had a pretty robust response. And now as an adult, when boxes fall or doors slam, you notice you have a robust response as well. We would call that your trait level of startle.”
But there are things that affect our responses.
For example, our emotional states. If someone is stressed, or upset, it tends to increase the startle response. There’s also a connection to anxiety. For anxious people, a higher startle response tends to be part of the personality profile. Or, the startle response could be tied to a specific anxiety, like fear of flying or fear of spiders.
“If you put them in the presence of a situation or a cue that they’re afraid of, then they’re going to startle much more,” Norrholm said.
That also happens after traumatic experiences. People with post-traumatic stress often startle easily. For example, if someone has been in a car accident, they may have heightened startle responses in traffic afterward.
Can you tame your startle response?
I asked Norrholm if I could do anything to reduce my frequent shrieks and skipped heartbeats over basically nothing.
“So the quick answer to that is no. You’re going to startle and then realize you startled, so you don’t have a whole lot of executive control over it,” he said.
But if the startle response is tied to a heightened state of anxiety, things like breathing, yoga, and better sleep could help.
If the response is tied to a specific cue, you could try to reduce your response to it.
“Let’s say your coworkers are constantly slamming the door, and you’re having a strong reaction to it. You can set up a situation and this is what we call extinction learning, which is another way of saying exposure therapy,” Norrholm explained. He said you could ask somebody to slam the door repeatedly, so that you get habituated and used to that noise. And that will bring down your startle response.
“So you can either bring down overall levels of stress and anxiety, or you can bring down the response to a specific, startling cue that you’ve identified.”
Norrholm said that when he started doing this kind of research, he would test his equipment on himself. He’d hear the sudden, loud noise and see his response on the computer screen. And now, he hardly notices the sound anymore. He has to ask somebody else to test the equipment.
I wanted to try and see if I could decrease my startle reaction to loud noises.
I looked around online for some loud noises, and recorded one that sounded like a small explosion. I made an hourlong soundtrack with that loud boom repeating several times, and with long pauses of silence in between. My goal was to forget about the soundtrack, then be startled, then forget about it again, and be startled again.
I started working on something totally different, with my soundtrack running in the background on my computer, running toward that loud bang. When it hit, I jumped. My heart rate increased, I gasped, the whole thing. And the same thing happened with every boom. Every time, I forgot about the soundtrack by immersing myself in a new task, and then BOOM, it startled me again.
I realized this wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
Since my failed experiment, I’ve tried something different — just reaching a greater state of calm.
There’s this Dutch adventurer, Wim Hof, who is known as the Ice Man. He’s done all kinds of amazing things, like sitting in ice baths for long periods of time and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in record time, wearing just shorts.
He also does a very specific breathing technique where you quickly breathe in through your nose, and then out through the mouth, which really helps me calm down. I’ve been doing that every day — and I am less likely to startle at the smallest little thing.
Not that I will ever get there, but Norrholm said it’s good to keep in mind that your startle response serves an important purpose: “So you don’t want to get to the point where you’re not responding to sudden stimuli.”