PTSD symptoms

PTSD Symptoms: The Exaggerated Startle Response

by Jay Reid

A telltale sign of trauma & how to cope

Our bodies don’t lie when it comes to trauma.  The nervous system gets severely strained when trying to cope with a stress that’s beyond our capacities.  In fact, that’s what our nervous systems are there for: to balance the demands between self-regulation and survival.

Sometimes we have to get a little dysregulated to survive – like when we sprint away from a stray dog that has us in his sights.  Sure, we get winded and exhausted (a state of dysregulation) but we are able to escape the dog’s clutches.  Once the episode is over with, our nervous system kicks in to get our breathing back to normal.

The nervous system stuck in survival mode

If you were not so lucky to escape an attack on you – of any sort – then you were traumatized.   In the moment of that trauma you may not have known whether you were going to survive or how you were going to keep on living given how horrific your current circumstances felt.  Your  nervous system can also get stuck trying to ensure your survival rather than restoring your sense of calm and peace.  Trauma makes it hard to believe that your survival is guaranteed so that the nervous system can set about calming you down.

Increased startle response: A sign that your nervous system is in survival mode

Sometimes this state of readiness can show up as the startle response. This is a biologically programmed sequence of movements to keep us safe in the face of sudden danger. It can involve involuntarily covering vulnerable parts of the body (like the back of the neck or throat).  After a traumatic event or childhood maltreatment, you may be more easily startled and/or the experience of being startled can be more distressing.

If you notice yourself getting startled fairly easily but you haven’t had a recent traumatic event, then it is possible that you endured a relationally traumatic childhood.  I encourage you to answer my quiz here to see if this may be the case.

Startle easily?  Try these approaches to better manage this symptom of trauma

Here are a few tips for coping with an overactive startle response.

  • Practice getting your body into states of relaxation with Diaphragmatic Breathing for 5 minutes 4 times/day.
  • Exercise compassion with yourself when you do get startled. Part of recovering from trauma is becoming empathic with yourself for what you can and cannot control.  The startle response falls into the latter bucket.
  • Remember that if you feel self-conscious about your startle response, it is most likely that others take much less notice.

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).  He has several years of experience helping people learn to cope with symptoms of trauma.  If you are interested in psychotherapy, please contact him at contact him to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation.  

Comments 27

  1. I have survived several horrible traumas in my life,including childhood sexual abuse by my father,two abusive marriages,and various scary and stressful living situations.
    Two weeks ago I was startled by a barking dog and actually threw my car door into my face as I was getting into my car.This resulted in 6 stitches,and a shot I really didn’t want. I felt embarrassed when I saw my regular Dr., as I went to Urgent Care for the stitches.She just said they turned out pretty good,and that made me feel better.A startle response can injure you,obviously…..

    1. When I am concentrated , I use my total brain. Someone can just walk in the room and I jump. When I am not concentrating – this does not occur?

  2. I have had an exaggerated startle response for quite a few years now. It actually feels like a lifetime, because it has been. As far as most people not noticing it, or noticing it, but giving it a pass, that is true. However, it isn’t the people that ignore it that are the problem. It is the rare individual that see’s your problem and takes it upon themselves to begin to torment you! Yes, there are those rare sadistic individuals out there. They exist! Take my word for it! I’m going through this very thing right now. That is why I am desperate to find relief, of almost any kind. Short of taking Benzodiazepines of course. If anyone on here has any suggestions for treatment, I am all ears. I can’t take this anymore and I need help PDQ!

    1. Get away from your tormentor, don’t feel guilty if it’s a family member. You only have one life on Earth do what’s best for YOU. See a counsellor. Good luck and God bless you xx

  3. OMG my nervous system has been in “survival mode” for more than 50 years. A Councillor just gave me your contact info and I am certainly going to start the Tips given above to better manage. Thank you,

  4. I experienced severe traumatic events as a 15 year old, 17 year old and 39 year old. I have lived with an exaggerated startle response my entire life and am now 52. I recently stopped my anti depressant with a doctor’s advice. I honestly believe Inhave PTSD and will do something about it without medication. Much love to all of you who suffer with this. You are not alone.

  5. I was physically and emotionally abused by three teachers, K, 1st, and 2nd grade. I am now in my 70s.

    It has always been “funny” to people around me when I startle so violently. Even I laugh.

    I can be startled by my husband and children while washing dishes or sweeping the floor. People entering my office at work know to call out ahead to let me know they are coming so I don’t startle myself right out of my chair.

    I have startled so violently that I can scare the person who startled me. I have even pulled a neck and shoulder muscle several times when startled.

    My early school experiences took years to overcome. I’m still working on it.

    Startling easily is the one thing i’ve never been able to stop. At least I live in a safe and loving environment so I can laugh about this.

  6. Hi, I to was raised in a very abusive family where I probably had 12 near death experiences before I was 12. I was molested from the age of 11!/2 until 15!/2. I can’t remember when I started with this response but I know I would love to get rid of it! I can be reading or looking at something and someone puts a hand on my shoulder and I’m gone and the other person is as frightened I think as me.

  7. As a survivor of psychic trauma, I have an embarrassingly over-the-top startle response. A near-collision with another person as I’m coming out of the shower or sauna makes me gasp and flail like Kramer. Feel very alien at those times.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you for this response Susan. As challenging as trauma is, it is clear that it has not impeded your sense of humor. Often that humor is of great help in recovering from – and living with – trauma. The image you painted of ‘Kramer’ was downright hilarious.

  8. I experienced trauma as a senior in high school when my parents divorced, my mother used me as her tool for parental alienatio. Then again in my 30s, when my only sibling died unexpectedly. My startle tesponse was heightened a bit at first, but after my brother’s death – now it is off the charts. It has been 11 years. I literally scream and JUMP if someone sneezes, if my husband walks in the room and I didn’t hear him coming, if something falls resulting in a loud noise….I scream out. Generally if I am at my desk when it happens I will also pound my fists on my desk because it literally makes me angry that it even happens. It usually takes me a few minutes to get myself together. I work from home, but when I used to go into the office, everyone used to laugh hysterically and one of my friends told me to “just stop… that is ridiculous.” She thought I was faking. People do not understand feeling like you are always on the edge.
    Best to all of you!!

  9. I want to know how to get my husband to understand that purposely scaring me actually causes an electric like shock through my body! And its not funny!!!

    1. I am struggling with the same thing! My boyfriend thinks that is being playful and sulk when I shouted back at him. I particularly dislike the length of time it takes to calm that palpitation and shaking. After I calm down I beg him not to do that again and he told me to loosen up! It is the most frustrating thing ever! 🙁
      He loves me and cares for me but too insensitive to understand my condition. I think I will send him a link to this page to understand more about it, Thanks everyone sharing here!

  10. I have an extreme startle response when trying to perform unrelated to the event at hand. Should the dog starts to bark suddenly and I will startle and swear damnation at the dog’s ancestry. My fury of being startled makes the spousal-unit gets angry at me and tells me to calm down. (The dog stands there and barks at me while the wife ‘barks’ it’s … cute.)

    After 30 years as a field paramedic, seen many(but not all) horrible things that men, women, and mankind can do to themselves or others. For now, I sleep as little as I can, there are sounds of sirens and screams are in the sleep areas of my brain. I wake up in terror many times. I can’t ever remember why.

    I will try to stop being so twitchy someday. Right now, I just write and shoot archery.

  11. I divorced my ex husband after 8 years of emotional abuse climaxed with a night of physical abuse. I thought I would die that night & had to fight for my life. Luckily I made it to a phone & the police arrested him. I understood why I was jumpy after that but it’s been 20 years & if someone walks into a room when I’m not expecting them & says something innocuous like “Hey.” I jump up , throw my hands in the air & have to catch my breath. My new husband & my 3 children think it’s funny. It’s very disturbing for me however. I’m over it. Why isn’t my body?

    1. Julie, your story brought tears to my eyes. I scream several times a week when my husband approaches from behind and forgets to hum or sing from a distance to warn me. He’s very sympathetic, but hates to be startled by my screams. I wish I knew a way to stop doing it. BUT FOR YOUR FAMILY TO THINK IT’S FUNNY IS NOT OKAY! If I were you I would schedule a few sessions (or even just one if you can’t afford that) with a family therapist so your counselor can help your family understand where this comes from and how painful it is to you. They should be doing everything they can to avoid startling you.

  12. I have an exaggerated startle response as a result of sexual abuse in my early childhood. I had a co-worker who thought it was funny to occasionally up sneak up behind me at my desk and snap his fingers in both my ears. My reaction was always embarrassing, and I didn’t want to explain why it was so. I was a nervous wreck working with this individual because my supervisor wouldn’t do anything about it. Fortunately I don’t work there anymore.

  13. Well, I have severe PTSD and yes I startle easily. I was mentally, physically, sexually abused as a child. Also I am a combat veteran who was in Iraq. I get angry when people startle me on purpose, but around people I know and love who don’t intend on startling me, I just “sigh” it off. No one here deserves to be intentionally startled and it makes me insanely angry when I hear people practicing this behavior.

  14. I have been doing this more and more. My coworkers are starting to notice it and I can’t seem to stop it. I latterly jump out of my seat if I don’t see someone coming and then they apologize which is worse because I know my reaction is ridiculous. It has become a huge problem in my life and has led me to hide and isolate myself.

  15. We all need to to be mindful that our exaggerated startle responses aren’t typically understood by others, and that no amount of blame for their causing it, intentionally or unintentionally, is helpful to us. I found this site today after an extreme startle response about 10 minutes ago. I’m at home so I knew I was safe yet it set off shaking and crying as if I was 6 again. Quickly, I started deep breathing, reassured my husband that he was not at fault ( he simply entered the kitchen when my back was turned), and allowed his embrace to “love down” the effects. I also reassure myself that I’m worthy and in a good place now. I shared this experience partly to help me settle and partly to someone else needing reassurance. I have a great therapist and I have learned/ still learning how to deal with a lifetime of PTSP. It may sound crazy to some but 36 years of teaching helped balance me. I am an artist, get fresh air whenever possible, volunteer helping children and pursue a healthy life style.

  16. Hey i too suffer through this i am 20 btw and have hid amd isolated myself but i want to be able to hear and talk to other about their days their lives, experiences etc.. Please contact me if you would like to set up sort of like a pen-pal messaging, i have socials too if you prefer social media messaging

  17. I’m 50 with mogerate PTSD diagnosed in the last few years. I have started to connect the dots that some armed robberies and other traumatic events in my teens and 20’s may have already induced mild PTSD- things I attributed to anger management issues didn’t fit that mold. A few years ago extended stress at work from mismanagement and a whistleblowing situation caused what I am beginning to realize was increased PTSD and not initial. I’ve been in treatment and generally doing well for several years but just had my first (or so I thought) exaggerated startle response. Weeks of construction noise on the other side of my office wall had been variously annoying, humorous, or even entertaining (I was formerly in construction). All of a sudden a worker smacked the wall with a hammer a few feet from my head and then kept hammering. I stormed out of my office and pounded on the door until they opened. The workers didn’t like being yelled at! I have been researching startle response since. I thank you all for your examples. Of note, very recent studies have shown that the brainwaves of someone with PTSD react to the change in pattern of even slight unobtrusive tones-we’ve been rewired to perceive change.

  18. Exaggerated startle responses for me leave me feeling frightened. Im a 54 yr old Veteran, I was raised in a low income environment, very little food, ragged clothing, a psychologically and physically abusive violent alcoholic Father and my Mother checked out emotionally. Youngest of 3, I have 2 older Sisters. Middle Sis died in a car accident at 16, I was 10. 3 years later my Uncle and cousin drown. the following 2 summers, 1 friend succumbed to Leukemia and a 2nd in a car accident the following summer. Whenever my dog would bark, I would jump and yell and my wife would get angry at me for yelling and tell me I wasn’t normal and no need to act like that. Needless to say, I go into protect mode because I fear angry people and need to protect myself. I need time to calm down from it and allow myself to get back online, the last thing I need are people around me trying to rationalize with me about a response I already know isn’t rational to a non traumatized person

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