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.